While Maine lobstermen are hopeful for dynamic management, federal regulators and conservationists are hesitant to embrace it.
Fishermen aboard Atlantica pull up aside the Stonington town pier just after sunrise on Sept. 16, 2022. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

The landmark six-year pause on any new federal whale regulations gave Maine’s multimillion dollar lobster fishery a chance to gather itself after years of fighting new restrictions aimed at protecting the rapidly disappearing North Atlantic right whales.

Now, top state fishing officials plan to use this break to try and transform how lobstering is managed in Maine to benefit fishermen and the endangered whales.

Regulators have been concerned for years about right whales getting tangled in fishing gear. But officials have had few options to cut down on the risk: They could close fishing grounds where right whales had been known to swim, slash the number of traps allowed for each lobsterman or make fishermen weaken their lines to allow the whales to break free.

All of these have been untenable for lobstermen, who say right whales are never seen in the region.

Patrick Keliher, Maine’s Department of Marine Resources commissioner, has argued that the fishery needs more “tools in the toolbox.” Now, with the most time he’s had in recent memory to sit down and craft new measures, he is hoping that the dawn of “dynamic management” in Maine is here.

What is dynamic management? In theory, it’s a simple strategy to keep fishermen fishing, while also making way for whales. The Gulf of Maine would be monitored, with listening devices in the water and planes in the sky, for right whales. If signs of right whales are detected, fishermen would have to clear their traps out of the area.

Closures would only go into place if right whales are present, unlike now, where nearly 1,000 miles of offshore fishing grounds are closed annually from October through January, regardless of whether right whales have been spotted.

“I feel optimistic that we can develop something that can be incredibly effective,” Keliher said. “It’s a work in progress, but at the end of the day we could do this in a way that’s meaningful for right whales.”

Dynamic management has been pitched by Maine before, and a version of it is being used in parts of the Canadian snow crab fishery. A similar style of management also is used in the U.S. to slow down ships when right whales are sighted.

But dynamic management’s use in something as massive as the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery hasn’t always landed well with conservationists or federal regulators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  

The state proposed a rough version of dynamic management years ago after environmental groups sued NOAA, but it didn’t make it into the first round of new rules. The management strategy came up again with a federal working group tasked with coming up with ways to cut the fishery’s risk to right whales in December.

During last month’s pitch, the Department of Marine Resources said it should implement a robust monitoring program that has been used in other places so there could be real-time data for sightings and whale calls. That would be paired with plane flyovers, plankton surveys and other habitat modeling to help bolster knowledge of the right whale’s path to and from feeding grounds in Canada and Massachusetts.

If a right whale is detected, corresponding fishing areas could be closed until the right whale passed through.

The issue is somewhat moot now with the pause in place and the status quo has been cemented for the next six years. But conservationists have serious reservations about state regulators’ interest in dynamic management.

“It’s been tried in the past and it takes a considerable amount of effort and adaptation of the fishery,” said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. “I don’t think it’s an easy lift.”

First, the monitoring system needs to detect right whales effectively, which can be a challenge because they spend long times underwater and may not always be in range of a monitoring device. Conservationists aren’t opposed to more monitoring, but fear putting too much confidence in monitoring as the first line of defense could lead to more right whale injuries.

Mother right whales and their young calves don’t make whale calls because they don’t want to attract attention from predators, meaning the most crucial members of the population may not be protected under such a scheme.

It’s also one thing to say fishermen will be able to pull all their hundreds of traps in an area in a timely fashion when a right whale is sighted, and another to actually make it happen, Knowlton said. If there’s bad weather, it could take days or even longer to clear an area.

“I have my concerns about relying on [dynamic management] as a fix to this problem,” she said.

She’d rather see more work done on the currently in development on-demand fishing gear that cuts down on the amount of fishing lines in the water, as well as weaker rope.

“We need more work done on the solutions instead of suggesting dynamic management will be the ultimate solution,” Knowlton said.

Federal regulators have been hesitant about dynamic management, too, saying that rulemaking requirements take time and don’t allow the fishery to be nimble enough to make quick changes whenever a right whale is sighted. NOAA has started to broach the idea though, and asked people to chime in on the strategy in September.

Whether the agency considers dynamic management a viable option for the future isn’t clear. A NOAA spokesperson said the agency is still sorting its path forward under the six-year delay.

How much it would cost to implement dynamic management in the Gulf of Maine, the biggest lobster fishery in the country, is also up in the air. The omnibus bill that included the six-year pause had provisions that could fund research and the monitoring necessary for the management style.

Money for a new survey plane for the Department of Marine Resources also was included in Gov. Janet Mills’ current budget proposal, according to Keliher.

Lobstermen said dynamic management could be crucial for the easternmost and southernmost fishing areas in Maine. A preliminary plan aired to the federal whale working group in December prior to the pause suggested closures in both areas. Keliher expected that the Down East zone would see close to a 50 percent drop in income if that happened.

That was alarming to Virginia Olsen, a leader in the Maine Lobstering Union, who said such closures could effectively kill the industry. But she now welcomed the chance to work on changing the long, static way the lobster fishery has been run so both the right whales and lobstermen benefit.

“This gives us a little bit of time to implement dynamic area management,” she said. “We need to save right whales where they are and not just throw the baby out with the bath water.”