In this March 28, 2018, file photo, a North Atlantic right whale appears at the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Credit: Michael Dwyer | AP

There’s a debate raging over how much Maine’s lobstermen should have to change how they fish for the sake of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The state’s congressional delegation and governor have sided with lobstermen, arguing that Maine’s iconic fishery isn’t responsible for the shrinking population of right whales. Meanwhile, propelled by a lawsuit from conservation groups, the federal government is working on regulations that would require lobstermen to use less fishing line and switch to weaker rope from which entangled whales can more easily break free.

The debate boils down to this: Should regulators give more weight to risk or evidence?

On the risk side are whale conservationists who point out that the North Atlantic right whale population — now estimated at slightly more than 400 — has declined by nearly 6 percent since January 2017, and that 85 percent of the critically endangered species show signs of having been entangled in rope at some point. The amount of rope Maine lobstermen place in the ocean, they say, poses too significant a threat to allow the practice to continue unchecked.

On the evidence side are fishermen who say that only once, in 2002, has there been a documented case of a right whale getting wrapped up in Maine lobster fishing gear. Plus, right whales are not often seen where the vast majority of Maine lobstermen set their gear. Their gear is not entangling whales, lobstermen say, so why should they have to bear the brunt of the federal government’s proposed solution?

“I think that’s where we are right now,” said Paul Anderson, executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, a fisheries science and policy group in Stonington. Federal regulators are charged with assessing and mitigating the risk human activities pose to right whales, he said, but when it comes to claims that Maine lobstermen are having a significant impact on the species, “the evidence is scant.”

That’s the basic debate, but a couple more factors have brought it to the forefront over the past two years.

One is that 28 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead since 2017, marking a setback for the species after a slow but steady rebuilding of its numbers between 1990 (270) and 2010 (480). Twenty of the whales found dead since 2017 were in Canadian waters, where scientists say climate change has moved the whales’ preferred food source — a fat-rich zooplankton called Calanus — and where fishermen and mariners are not used to taking precautions to avoid the animals.

So far this year, eight right whales have died in Canada, and at least one live entangled whale first spotted in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence was partially disentangled earlier this month off Cape Cod.

Watch: This right whale gets partially disentangled off Cape Cod

Seventeen whales died in 2017 alone, including 12 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At least four of those whales died from ship strikes and two from entanglements, while five more right whales were found alive entangled in fishing gear, according to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Three of the live whales were disentangled, but what became of the other two is unknown.

The second factor contributing to the debate is a lawsuit environmental groups filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service in January 2018, saying that the whales’ plight has become increasingly dire and that the agency is violating the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act by not doing enough to reduce the risk of entanglement by American lobster fishing gear. The current effort by federal regulators to tighten gear restrictions on lobstermen stems from this lawsuit.

Whale deaths are not the only factor in the population’s decline. The birth rate of right whales has also dropped off to a third of what it was, with only 12 calves born in the past three years, according to federal officials.

What has caused the dip in right whale births is not clear. Fishermen say they cannot be held responsible for the low birth rate, but conservationists say that stress caused by widespread entanglements likely has hampered the species’ reproduction.

To address the issue, federal regulators have set a target of reducing the threat of serious injury or death due to entanglement in American waters by 60 percent. In April, they came up with a rough concept of achieving this goal by reducing the amount of vertical fishing line in the water and by mandating greater use of weak links in rope so if it does get wrapped around a whale, it will be easier for the animals to break free.

Credit: Stephan Savoia | AP

Federal regulators say they also plan to require better marking of gear so it will be easier to track where fishing rope that turns up wrapped around a right whale came from — a measure that Anderson said has support among Maine fishermen.

“We should have [better] marked our gear 15 years ago,” Anderson said, adding that doing so should help demonstrate whether Maine lobster gear entangles whales. The majority of the time, officials cannot determine where a rope wrapped around a whale came from because there aren’t any geography- or fishery-specific markers on it.

According to aerial survey data collected by NOAA, most right whale sightings between 2012 and 2017 occurred east of Cape Cod, far beyond where the vast majority of Maine lobstermen set their gear. Most aerial right whale sightings that have occurred in the Gulf of Maine closer to shore — within roughly 25 miles — have occurred offshore from York County and farther south toward Cape Cod.

Credit: Courtesy of NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has not yet set specific targets for reducing vertical lines or increasing the use of weak links, but it has been holding a series of meetings to solicit feedback from fishermen who will be affected by the pending restrictions. The agency hopes to have a concrete proposal by early 2020, with changes expected to go into effect the following year.

Twice before, in 2009 and in 2014, federal regulators have responded to legal threats from environmental groups by enacting tighter measures on Maine’s lobster fishery — both times with the goal of reducing the amount of vertical rope suspended in the water.

Watch: The Maine lobster industry

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....