Credit: George Danby

The voices of Maine’s lobster fishermen are being drowned in a sea of injustice. I’m determined to speak for them.

U.S. District Court Judge James Boasburg’s recent ruling is the latest blow to Maine’s billion-dollar industry. Boasburg’s decision that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration violated the Endangered Species Act by authorizing the American lobster fishery despite its potential to harm the North Atlantic right whale population comes on the heels of new regulations imposed on fishermen last year. With many fishermen just starting to mark their fishing gear according to the new regulations, Boasburg’s ruling has left them in a state of uncertainty. Will this be the end of the industry as they know it?

Maine’s lobster industry provides an estimated 5,500 jobs throughout the state, according to a study conducted by Colby College and Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association in 2016. In a state with a population of 1.3 million, 5,500 jobs may seem expendable. However, the fishermen themselves are often the main source of income for their households. In Washington County, where unemployment is the highest in the state, households dependent on lobster fishermen rely on the fishery for an average of 77 percent of household income, according to a 2012 study by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. The death of the fishery would throw many into poverty, and others would be forced to leave their coastal homes to find work.

To add insult to injury, Boasburg’s ruling represents a mere stripe in a pattern of striking injustice. Since June 2017, right whale mortalities have been on the rise, a pattern that has been declared an Unusual Mortality Event by NOAA. However, according to current statistics from NOAA Fisheries, 21 of the 30 dead stranded whales for the UME were found in Canada. Of the nine found in the U.S., only five were confirmed or suspected of entanglement, and not a single one was found in Maine waters. Furthermore, NOAA has only documented Maine lobster gear on three live entangled whales, most recently in 2004. None has been documented on a dead right whale.

NOAA warns that it is often difficult to determine the origins of gear involved in whale entanglements, so the actual number of entanglements due to Maine fishing gear could be much higher. With new gear marking regulations in place starting with the 2020 fishing season, time will tell if Maine fishing gear poses more of a threat than has been previously observed.

One thing is certain: If rulings like Boasburg’s continue to impact Maine’s lobster fishery without evidence to suggest that its fishermen are responsible, the state of Maine must intervene to protect the industry and those who depend on it.

Maine fishermen continue to comply with increasing regulations aimed at protecting right whales, pouring copious amounts of time and money into their efforts to keep their gear legal. But many fishermen see their efforts as a waste. Even the most honest fisherman will tell you that he has never even seen a right whale. NOAA’s map of right whale sightings from 2013 to 2017 confirms that sightings along the coast of Maine are practically nonexistent, and although they attribute this to the behavior of the whales while in transit, they can offer no evidence confirming that this is undoubtedly the case. Could it be possible that the whales do not come close enough to Maine’s coast for our fishermen to be responsible for their entanglements?

The death of the Maine lobster fishery without evidence to justify its demise would be a great injustice to all who rely on the industry to survive, and would deliver a substantial blow to Maine’s coastal economy, especially in Washington County, where poverty and unemployment are higher than the state average. If this tragedy is to be prevented, the state of Maine must intervene — and I won’t stop until they do.

Carol Smith of Jonesport is from a family of lobstermen and has worked as a sternman on a lobster boat.