A North Atlantic right whale appears at the surface on March 28, 2018, off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP

With fewer than 350 right whales left on the planet, federal fishery regulators have been tasked with cutting the risk to the whales by 90 percent in order to get in compliance with the Endangered Species Act. But to do so, the changes may need to be drastic.

While there are no official proposals on the table yet to achieve such a cut, the National Marine Fisheries Service recently laid out examples that show just how big of a change could be in store for Maine’s lobster fleet.  

Earlier this month, the service presented a pair of scenarios to the team working on whale protections to show what it would take to cut the risk by 90 percent. The first would reach a 94 percent dip in risk to the whales by closing all the offshore trap fishery from Maine to Florida year round. State waters would also need cuts to the number of vertical fishing lines that run from traps on the seafloor to surface buoys, and the use of weak rope would be continued.

read more

The second scenario, which would achieve an 89 percent reduction, entails chopping the number of vertical fishing lines in half and broadening the use of weakened fishing ropes that are designed to make it easier for whales to break through them. The scenario would also include seasonal rotating closures across the East Coast and in all of Maine seven lobster fishing zones.

Under the second example, Maine would have a rotation of closures in the offshore areas of each zone. The federal waters of zones A and B would be closed in June and July, zones C, D and E would be closed from October to January and zones F and G would be closed in February and March.

Patrick Keliher, the Maine Department of Marine Resources commissioner, sent a letter to the lobster industry over the weekend detailing the two examples. He emphasized that they are not proposals that are currently being considered by the fisheries service, but are designed to “illustrate the magnitude of measures needed to achieve large risk reductions.”

“As you can tell from the above examples, achieving a 90 percent risk reduction is going to be very difficult, and there are going to be significant impacts to the lobster and gillnet industries in Maine,” he wrote. “While the above illustrations are just examples, they give you a feel for how extensive the next round of risk reductions may be.”

In recent years, a growing number of Maine lobstermen fishing have been farther offshore, making either option painful. Almost 1,300 of the roughly 4,800 commercial lobstermen in Maine have licenses to fish offshore in federal waters.

Maine lobstermen caught a total of about $178.8 million worth of the crustacean in federal offshore waters in 2017, giving a glimpse into what a total offshore closure could look like under the first scenario.

While the second scenario will still allow offshore fishing, it will still mean a big dip in money for the fishery. According to federal estimates, the seven Maine zones on average catch a combined $57.5 million worth of lobster in the closure areas and times under the second scenario. That’s about 8 percent of the statewide total landings in 2021, a record-high year.

This is the second round of new regulations on the lobster fishery designed to protect right whales. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said that entanglements in fishing gear is one of the biggest threats to the whales.

Maine fishermen vehemently deny that whales get tied up in their lines and many say they’ve never seen one. They are also quick to point out that there has not been an entanglement attributed to Maine in about 20 years, though only a fraction of whale entanglements have ever been directly tied to where they originated.

The National Marine Fisheries Service plans to hold a public hearing later this month on potential ways to protect the whales. Maine officials have called for there to be more chances for fishermen to weigh in.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association described the example scenarios as “grim” in an email to its members earlier this month, but has vowed to continue fighting for fishermen.

“As difficult as this will be, the lobster industry must engage in this process,” the association wrote. “As you can see from the strawman proposals NMFS has created, these scenarios will likely cause a huge shake out within the fishery and inflict a lot of hurt on those who are lucky enough to make it through.”

The association filed a lawsuit against the fisheries service last fall, claiming the agency didn’t use the best science in its overarching plan to protect the whales and underestimated the conservation measures already in use by the Maine lobster fleet. A federal judge ruled against the association this month and the group announced Monday that it was appealing the decision.

“We refuse to let a single judge’s decision be the last word,” said Kristan Porter, the president of the association. “The facts are clear. Maine lobstermen are not driving the whales towards extinction.”