In this Nov. 16, 2021, file photo, lobster boats and gear sit at a Portland wharf. Issues surrounding lobster gear and right whales are complicated. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Right now, lobstermen are hauling their gear out of a 967-square mile stretch of ocean, roughly 30 miles offshore, in the Gulf of Maine.

Lobstermen don’t want to vacate the area, especially during the lucrative, deep-water, winter fishing season but federal courts and lawsuits are forcing them to do so.

Last week, the Federal First Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a seasonal prohibition by the National Marine Fisheries Service on lobstering with buoys and lines in that area. The closure, running October through January, is an attempt to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from deadly entanglements in lobster gear.

The fight isn’t over, though. It’s now going back to the lower court in Bangor.

Both sides say the stakes are high.

Understanding the ongoing battle is difficult for anyone not intimately involved in it. With that in mind, we spoke to advocates on both sides and read a lot of scientific reports. Here’s a guide to understanding the fight over whales and lobster gear in the Gulf of Maine.

(At least for now, until something changes, that is.)

How did North Atlantic Right whales get so endangered?

Being slow swimmers who tend to stay close to shore, right whales were a favorite human hunting target for hundreds of years.

The whales are so packed with blubber that they float when dead, making them easy to butcher at sea. The rendered blubber made copious amounts of oil, used in lamps and a myriad of other 19th century products.

They were such favored targets, right whales got their name because they were the “right” whales to kill. By the 20th century, their numbers were decimated.

A right whale can weigh up to 140,000 pounds, live 70 years and grow to over 50 feet long.

Are the whales still in danger?

A female North Atlantic right whale, which later died, swims while entangled in fishing gear off the Florida coast in 2020. Credit: ourtesy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Though no longer hunted, they still face challenges.

Right whales have their babies in warm waters off South Carolina and Georgia. Then, they swim north in the summer. They used to spend a lot of time feeding in the Gulf of Maine but, with climate change and warming oceans, they now tend to spend more time in Canadian waters.

On their long journeys, north and south, right whales swim through busy shipping lanes where they can be hurt or killed when a vessel runs them down.

The whales also swim with their large mouths open when feeding, straining the water for tiny crustaceans. Doing this, they are apt to get tangled in vertical fishing lines attached to stationary gear like lobster traps and crab pots.

Right whales are also slow to reproduce. Reaching sexual maturity between five and 10 years old, females have only one calf at a time, every three to four years.

How bad is it?

The situation is dire.

As of 2020, scientists believe there are only 336 North Atlantic right whales left. Out of those, they estimate only 75 are females of breeding age.

Since 2017, there have been 34 confirmed North Atlantic right whale deaths due to human interaction. Of those, 21 were in Canada and 13 in the United States.

Scientists think nine of the deaths were due to entanglements, 11 from ship strikes and 13 from unknown — but not natural — causes. One additional death is chalked up to one of the whales being ready to give birth.

Additionally, in the same time span, 16 live whales have been spotted with serious injuries from entanglements or vessel strikes.

But scientific population model decreases indicate even more deaths, making scientists believe additional, unknown right whales have perished in contact with humans since 2017.

Local lobstermen point out, however, that not a single confirmed death has ever happened in Maine waters. Further, there’s been no documented cases of whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear since 2004.

Why did the Maine closure happen?

The simplest explanation is: Because scientists think there are right whales out there.

Maine lobstermen are not so sure.

Unlike down south, off Massachusetts, scientists do not spot and identify right whales from planes in Maine waters. Instead, they listen for them with special, underwater microphones.

They say they can hear them out there, in the closure area, singing their whale songs. However, that detection method is not as accurate as visual sightings. It cannot differentiate age or sex and does not provide concrete numbers.

Lobstermen cite the lack of confirmed entanglements as proof that whales are not present in the closure area.

Whale advocates counter with the fact that whales spend the summer in Canadian waters and give birth off the southern states — therefore, they pass through the Gulf of Maine during the time of the closure, in the late fall and winter.

How many Maine lobstermen are affected by the current closure?

Nobody knows.

The closure is about 30 miles offshore. Lobstering past three miles requires a federal permit, rather than a state lobster license.

Out of the roughly 4,800 licensed lobstermen in Maine, around 1,300 have federal permits. But how many of those fishermen actually lobster in the exclusion zone — and how many traps they set there — is in dispute.

Federal regulators reckon 64 vessels lobster in the closed waters, but the Maine Lobstermen’s Association thinks it’s likely double that number.

The actual figure is unknown because lobstermen are not required to report where they catch their crustaceans and tend to be secretive about the best fishing spots.

The feds estimate lost lobster revenue from the off-limits zone is worth between $500,000 and $1 million at the dock. The Lobstermen’s Association thinks it’s a lot more than that, possibly double.

If the closure affects so few lobstermen, and for only four months, what’s the big deal?

In this Nov. 16, 2021, file photo, Maine Lobstermen’s Association President Kristan Porter stands on Widgery Wharf in Portland during a press conference where his organization announced plans to raise $10 million for current and future court fights over right whale conservation fishing regulations. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

In winter, Maine lobsters migrate offshore, in search of more stable ocean temperatures. The hearty lobstermen who follow them must invest in expensive gear and fast, ocean-sturdy vessels.

The closure represents a significant loss in income and a threat to their financial stability.

Lobstermen brave wintertime ocean weather because that’s when demand for their catch goes up and supplies go down. In other words, prices are high and they make more money.

Lots of people — around the globe — eat Maine lobster during the holiday season. Additionally, in the colder months, lobsters have hearty, hard shells and can withstand shipping quite well.

Another reason lobstermen are fighting the current closure is fear of what’s next.

Nobody knows what steps federal regulators will take next in their 10 year plan, but they are shooting for an eventual 98-percent reduction in human-caused whale mortalities by 2030.

Lobstermen fear incremental regulation creep will eventually make their livelihoods impossible.

The current four-month closure in the Gulf of Maine is meant to run at least three years before being reviewed and possibly made permanent.

In recent years, Maine lobstermen have already weathered a number of state and federal regulation changes aimed at whale safety.

Lobstermen have increased the number of traps per buoy, thus reducing the number of vertical lines in the water. It’s those vertical lines which can entangle a whale.

They’ve also inserted weak points in their lines, designed to break away in the event a whale gets tangled.

Additionally, lobstermen are now marking their lines with mandated colors indicating if they’re used in either federal or state waters. That way, if there’s an entanglement, scientists will know where the rope originated. Likewise, every trap is marked with state or federal tags and the lobsterman’s name.

What’s next?

Now, lobstermen have two weeks to get their traps out of the closed area. It will remain off limits until the end of January.

Meanwhile, a federal district court judge in Bangor is reviewing arguments and will issue a determination if the closure is fair and warranted. A decision in the case is expected sometime next year.

Maine lobstermen are hoping it comes before October, when the seasonal closure would take effect once more.

In the meantime, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association has launched a drive to raise $10 million for future research and court battles.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.