This Jan. 19, 2021 photo provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources shows a North Atlantic right whale mother and calf in waters near Wassaw Island, Ga. Credit: AP

In coastal Maine, the plans to protect the North Atlantic right whale are a contentious issue. The species’ demise and its implications for the state’s multimillion-dollar lobster fishery have been the subject of protests and lawsuits, legislation and consternation.

Debate about the whales has gone on for years, and, although new legislation provides a shield to the lobster industry for six years, it’s unlikely to stop any time soon.

This is what we do and don’t know about right whales’ time in Maine waters.

There’s a lot of hubbub about the whale rules. What is going on?

It’s estimated that there are only about 340 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. The species is considered endangered and has been in decline for several years, triggering protections under federal law.

After environmental groups sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2018, a federal court found that the regulatory agency wasn’t doing enough to protect the whales from the risks posed by the lobster fishery.

With the federal government in violation of the Endangered Species Act, NOAA was forced to come up with new restrictions on lobstering throughout the Northeast. The agency enacted requirements to make fishing ropes weaker, closures of some fishing grounds and other new regulations.

The court deemed the efforts insufficient and required NOAA to cut the risk to whales even faster. That timeline has now been slowed after recent legislation delayed any new regulations until 2029.

Are there right whales in the Gulf of Maine?

Yes, right whales are found in the Gulf of Maine, which extends from Maine through Massachusetts. Their migration pattern encompasses the entire East Coast. In the spring, summer and fall, many of the remaining whales can be found off New England and farther north to feed and mate.

Exactly how many go through Maine’s waters isn’t clear, but is something researchers are trying to find out. In the past, whales would often go from Massachusetts waters to the northern Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. Recent research showed a shift in behavior, with about 40 percent of the right whale population going to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. 

Do Maine lobstermen ever see right whales?

Many lobstermen say they never see right whales. They’d feel new rules would be more justifiable if they did, they say. While that claim isn’t really verifiable, a majority of the fleet does fish close to shore, an area where it is less likely for a right whale to venture.

Those who fish farther offshore may never see one either though the likelihood of whales in the area is higher, according to federal data.

Whether fishermen have seen them or not, right whales have been spotted or detected recently off the coast of Maine. A slow zone for boaters in southern Maine was implemented last month, after an acoustic detector picked up multiple whale calls. A right whale was also spotted off Portland in 2021. Detections of whales have also happened in the past few years off York and Lubec.

But Maine sightings remain far fewer than those in Massachusetts and Canada — two areas where right whales are known to congregate in large numbers.

Have right whales gotten entangled in Maine fishing gear?

This is where things get sticky. Entanglements are one of the leading causes of injury and death for the whales, according to federal regulators.

There have been no right whale entanglements attributed to Maine fishing gear since 2004. That is undeniable and is one of the most-cited stats by supporters of the lobster industry. But whale advocates say the stat doesn’t hold the weight that some claim. It is extremely rare for entanglements to be pinpointed to their source. Only about two percent of entanglements have been drawn back to where they happened.

There have been recent attempts to make it easier to identify where entanglements happen so regulators have a better idea where protections are needed. New rules implemented in 2022 gave each state a specific color marker for their fishing lines. No entanglements have been attributed to Maine since the new color markers were implemented.

The reading of this stat cuts to the heart of the dispute between conservationists and the lobster industry.

The industry claims it is being blamed for the demise of the species without any conclusive evidence. If regulators can’t point to a single instance of a right whale getting entangled in Maine fishing gear in nearly 20 years, it is unfair for the fleet to be hit with burdensome regulations, the industry contends.

Conservation groups feel that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, and, with only a few hundred whales left, it is too risky to not take precautions in Maine, which accounts for about 80 percent of all U.S. lobster landings.

Do we know where the whales swim?

Generally speaking, right whales swim up and down the east coast, from Canada to Florida. In New England, they are most commonly sighted around Cape Cod, the hook-shaped peninsula in Massachusetts.

Outside of these highly visible congregations, it can often be hard to spot the whales. They do not spend much time on the ocean surface, making it difficult to tell where they are for long periods of time.

Research has shown that the phytoplankton right whales eat have been moving into cooler waters in recent years, sending whales into new territory to find them. This had a devastating effect in 2017, when the whales moved further in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a heavily trafficked shipping lane where the whales had rarely gone before.

Between 2017 and 2019, 20 right whales were found dead in Canadian waters. That decline is what spurred the new push for stronger protections.

Researchers are now trying acoustic and other monitors to tell where the whales are going. A map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows several detections since 2020 off the Maine coast, though nowhere near the amount detected off Massachusetts.

What about ship strikes?

Federal regulators cite vessel strikes as another leading cause of death for right whales. Many lobstermen in Maine feel that more attention should be paid to this threat and are quick to point the finger at shipping vessels.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have proposed changes to reduce speed in areas where whales are known to congregate, a move that was applauded by the lobster industry. All of the zones are south of Maine.

NOAA has also implemented voluntary slow zones when whales are sighted, though advocates often criticize these for being toothless.

Is it easy to distinguish between right whales and other whales?

Right whales have a distinct call from other whales, such as minkes and humpbacks. That makes them easy to identify with acoustic monitors in the waters. Visually speaking, they differ from other whales by the white callous markings on their large heads and the lack of a dorsal fin.

What’s the outlook for right whales?

Not great. Since 2017, 92 right whales have been killed or injured and several advocates believe the new pause on regulations could set the species back even further.

A recent review of the species by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the whale must remain on the endangered species list and the species is “continuing to decline and has not met many of the recovery criteria outlined” in its recovery plan.

A NOAA spokesperson this week said that the agency is still working out the way forward on how to protect the whales given the new “pause” on any new rules for the lobster fishery until 2029.

The species is also struggling with warming waters and research shows that entanglements in fishing gear and other factors are stunting the growth of the whales.