NOAA officials received strong pushback from fishermen and politicians over proposed lobster gear rules.
Lobstermen and women, members of Maine Marine Patrol, and political leaders packed a hearing held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the University of Southern Maine in Portland on Wednesday night to take testimony on further restrictions to protect endangered right whales. Credit: Susan Sharon / Maine Public

Lobstermen from around Maine packed a hearing Wednesday night in Portland on proposed rules to protect endangered right whales.

Maine lobstermen are already facing gear changes and the seasonal closure of nearly 1,000 square miles of fishing grounds. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association said that should reduce whale mortality by about 46 percent but the agency is looking for further risk reductions of another 44 percent.

Sonny Beal, a third-generation lobsterman from Beals Island, said lobster gear is not the problem. Rather, ship strikes are. But he said the Maine lobster industry is paying the price.

“You’re gonna cripple the Maine economy with your lies and computer guesses,” he said. “We won’t be buying trucks or homes. Our kids won’t be going to Maine schools. We won’t be shopping at local grocery stores. We won’t be taking trips to Old Orchard Beach or Moosehead Lake. In fact, the banks will be crippled because they’ll own everything including our boats.”

About 31 whales are lost each year from a right whale population estimated at 350, according to NOAA.

Gov. Janet Mills, former Gov. Paul LePage, former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and members of Maine’s congressional delegation all showed up in support of Maine lobstermen who they said are being unfairly targeted.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said NOAA has continually refused to follow the science, and she had two suggestions: “First, focus on ship strikes, ship strikes. We know the number of right whales that were killed by ship strikes in the St. Lawrence Seaway. That’s fact. That’s documented.”

Second, Collins said, is that NOAA should work with Canada to determine the extent of the harm caused by the snow crab fishery.

Colleen Coogan of NOAA’s marine mammal and sea turtle team told the crowd in Portland that nearly 100 whales a year show signs of interaction with lobster ropes. She said that’s too many for a population that numbers 350.

“So we’re really looking for measures that, when we combine them, can get us another 44 percent risk reduction coastwide. So, that we get that cumulative 90 percent risk reduction and can determine that we are unlikely to seriously injure or kill more than one right whale a year.”

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.