A crew of lobstermen head out to fish as the reflection of a sunlit building colors the waters of Portland Harbor, Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Portland, Maine. The lobster fishing industry has been hurt by the shrinking demand for its product bought on by the global coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

New research suggests that the U.S. lobster industry could place fewer traps in the water and still gain just as much profit. And that finding could play a role in the debate over what should be required of Maine lobstermen to reduce entanglements with endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The study was published this week in the peer-reviewed Marine Policy Journal. Lead researcher Hannah Myers, a graduate student at the University of Alaska’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Studies, examined landings and other data from lobster-fishing territory that crosses the international Hague Line between Nova Scotia and Maine.

Myers’ research might help to end an impasse between animal-rights activists who are looking to reduce entanglements injurious, if not fatal, to the whales and have said that Maine fishing lines are at least a statistically-significant threat to the creatures. Maine lobstermen criticize activists and researchers as advancing poorly-researched and economically damaging arguments to their way of life. A plan recently advanced by Maine fishermen was criticized by researchers as not going far enough, while Maine’s federal and state government leaders have called on the federal government to back down on encroaching upon Maine lobstermen.

The researchers behind the study found that while the Canadians spent fewer days at sea and fished fewer traps, the traps they pulled had almost four times as many lobsters in them.

“We found that Canadian fishers in the Gulf of Maine caught about the same amount of lobster using seven and a half times less effort than Maine fishers on the U.S. side,” Myers said.

Myers cautioned that there are a number of variables that could change the picture from one fishing zone or season to the next, but the evidence shows that reduced effort does not necessarily mean less success. In fact, when the researchers looked at an area off Massachusetts that over the last decade has been periodically closed to protect right whales, they discovered that annual lobster landings actually increased there.

“As far as why catch might actually be higher with a closure, there’s a lot of biological reasons for that and other variables that confound it, but in some cases it might be analogous to farmers allowing a field to lie fallow in order to improve productivity later on,” Myers said.

The report suggests that in areas where lobster fishing is not as efficient as it could be, new whale protection rules that reduced effort could boost lobster abundance and fishermen’s profits.

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Federal regulators and courts are now considering measures such as closures, lower trap limits, or limits on the number of ropes allowed per trap.

Maine’s Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association had no immediate comment.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.