A federal judge recently accepted a proposal from groups representing lobstermen and environmental interests that would give them two years to develop new rules aimed at better protecting endangered whales.
That’s the good news. The potentially bad news is that lobstermen will still likely have to comply with rules that will be much more stringent than current rules and will likely require the removal of much more rope from the water and the closure of some fishing areas. That’s because a federal judge has ruled that federal fisheries regulators have not done enough to protect North Atlantic right whales, which are on the endangered species list.
The time should be used to gather more, better information about the interaction of lobstermen and North Atlantic right whales. Maine lobstermen say that no right whale has been documented to be ensnared in their gear for nearly two decades. However, right whales continue to be found along the east coast entangled in fishing gear and a right whale was spotted off Portland harbor last year. The marking of gear by state is relatively new, so it is unknown in most cases where the gear that has entangled whales came from.
If federal regulators are going to impose more stringent rules of lobster fishing, they need much more definitive evidence that lobster gear poses a threat to right whales. So far, that evidence is murky at best.
At the same time, federal regulators have also been slow to impose more re strictions on shipping, even though evidence shows that collisions with boats are a significant cause of right whale injuries and death.
This lack of information and slow action to minimize the danger from ships has contributed to the mistrust lobstermen have of federal regulators.
It doesn’t help that federal rules now appear to be mostly shaped by a judge and not by federal fisheries agencies based on scientific information they have gathered.
That distrust has led to misplaced calls for even more lawsuits against fisheries regulators – there are already three and Maine is an intervenor in the two most significant. It has also led to anger when lobstermen see their catch being served at a White House state dinner at the same time that large stores like Whole Foods have said they will stop selling lobster because it endangers whales. The Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch have essentially black listed lobster because, they say, harvesting the crustaceans endangers whales.
Which is it, lobstermen are essentially asking. How is it OK for lobsters to be on the menu for world leaders yet consumers are being told not to buy them because lobstering supposedly poses a deadly threat to right whales? This contradiction is, in part, caused by a lack of better information about the interaction between whales and fishing gear.
It is long past time for this information void to be filled.
At the same time, the additional time granted by the court can also be used for testing of gear that poses less risk to whales and other animals swimming through the ocean. Ropeless gear, which could eliminate the vertical rope that may entangle whales, is being developed. We realize it is expensive at this point and likely needs improvements to be useable on a wide scale. But, knowing that much stricter limits on the amount of rope that may be allowed in the water may be coming, testing out this gear makes sense.
And, yes, lobstermen and the state will continue to fight against these regulations that don’t take into consideration the livelihood of the men and women who fish for lobster and the industries that they support. That fight, however, needs to focus on facts, not overheated rhetoric. Suggesting that lobstermen, and hence the state, are in a “war” against federal regulators and the groups that have suggested avoiding lobster is not helpful. Neither are calls, which have been made recently, to financially punish the California aquarium behind the Seafood Watch listing and, as legislative Republicans have proposed, Whole Foods, which employs many people in Maine.
We understand the frustration that lobstermen feel, but channeling it into threats may be counterproductive.
Instead, working to fill information gaps and preparing for what is likely ahead makes the most sense.