In this Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019, photo a 3.5 pound lobster is held by a dealer at Cape Porpoise in Kennebunkport, Maine. America's lobster exports to China have plummeted this year as new retaliatory tariffs have shifted business to Canada. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

October was a challenging month for Maine’s lobster industry. Recent analysis shows that landings of the valuable crustaceans in Maine are down by about 40 percent so far this season. Part of the reason, it appears, is that lobsters were slow to grow this spring. But lobstermen also reported strong landings in October, so the total catch could rebound to match recent record numbers.

Last week, a federal judge ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service was wrong to reopen fishing grounds off Cape Cod because of the risk that nets pose to North Atlantic right whales, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The ruling does not apply to lobstermen and does not affect Maine, but it sends a message that the federal judiciary is heeding the concerns of conservation groups about the dangers that fishing, and its gear, pose to the rare whales. A separate lawsuit, filed by several conservation groups against NMFS regarding its permitting of lobster fishing, remains pending.

In the midst of this, the Maine Department of Marine Resources released proposed new rules in mid-October aimed at reducing the number of vertical ropes in the ocean off the state’s coast. The state plan would also require Maine-specific marking of lobster gear and monthly reporting of where lobstermen are setting traps.

Lobstermen, Gov. Janet Mills and Maine’s congressional delegation have roundly criticized a federal proposal that would require a 60 percent reduction in the risk to whales posed by Maine’s lobster industry. State officials originally and tentatively agreed to those targets, but later walked away from the regional agreement in pursuit of their own plan.

They are back with this new proposal that wisely seeks a middle ground between current gear rules and what had been previously proposed. DMR is holding meetings about the rule this week, beginning Monday in Ellsworth.

The most contentious part of the plan is likely to be new requirements to require multiple traps to be connected to one buoy line. The farther a lobstermen works from shore, the more traps would have to be connected to one another. For example, a lobsterman who sets traps between three and six miles from shore currently needs to put three traps on each trawl. That would be increased to eight traps in most instances. Those who fish more than 12 miles from shore would need to increase their trawls from 15 to 24 traps. Those working more than three miles from shore would also have to add a second weak point to their vertical line. This is intended to allow a whale that is entangled in line to break free from a long trawl of traps at the ocean floor.

A majority of Maine lobstermen, the roughly 70 percent who work inside an exclusion line that runs about three miles from shore and around offshore islands, would not have to make these potentially contentious gear changes.

Maine lobstermen strongly contend that right whales aren’t in Maine’s coastal waters and, therefore, aren’t getting entangled in Maine lobster gear. Right whales do travel through waters off the coast of Maine as they move between Maritime Canada where they feed and mate and the southern United States where they spend the winter and the females give birth. But, it is unlikely that they spend time in waters near the Maine coastline, where most of the state’s lobstermen work.

Still, the majority of right whale deaths in the last decade have been attributed to entanglements in fishing gear. Between 2010 and 2016, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium reported, 85 percent of diagnosed deaths were related to entanglements in fishing gear, of both U.S. and Canadian origin.

Despite the frequency of whales becoming entangled in gear, it is often unclear which fishery is responsible for it. Better gear marking and monitoring — as proposed in the new state plan — can help close this knowledge gap.

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a spending bill that includes provisions authored by Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Appropriations Committee, to allocate $10 million to right whale-related research, including gear marking and whale tagging.

State fisheries regulators have the difficult task of minimizing whale entanglements and death while not unduly burdening Maine’s lucrative and iconic lobster industry. The latest proposed rules move Maine in that direction.