News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 5, 2019 and The Weekly Packet, September 5, 2019
MLA withdraws support for right whale protection agreement
Data shows fishery ‘least significant cause’ of whale deaths

by Anne Berleant

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association no longer supports NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service agreement to reduce vertical trap lines by 60 percent, MLA executive director Patrice McCarron informed the head of NOAA fisheries.

NMFS’s own data show that the lobster fishery is the least significant cause of right whale serious injury or mortality, while ship strikes, gillnets and the Canadian snow crab fishery pose much greater risks,” McCarron wrote in a letter to NMFS August 30.

While trap lines can entangle North Atlantic right whales, a federally endangered species that has seen an increase in entanglement deaths this year, evidence that it is Maine lobstermen’s lines causing recent deaths is unproven.

And to achieve the 60 percent trap line reduction NMFS wants, lobstermen would have to sacrifice safety, by stringing more traps per line, or their usual haul by fishing fewer traps, or both, changes that threaten their livelihood and communities.

The MLA submitted recommendations for the development of an effective right whale protection program August 30, shortly after NOAA held meetings in Maine, including Ellsworth, to receive feedback from lobstermen and other industry stakeholders.

The MLA recommendations included publishing a “thorough analysis of its own data regarding known sources of entanglement risk to right whales,” and “correct misleading presentations of data on entangled right whales which imply that serious injury and mortality from the Northeast lobster fishery exceeds Potential Biological Removal (PBR), even though this assertion is not supported by the data.” The MLA also recommended investment in developing a tagging device to improve data on right whale distribution, increased surveillance in regulated waters, and development of right whale habitat suitability models.

Local lobstermen hold that warming waters have moved right whale feedings away from the Gulf of Maine, particularly coastal areas, and that previous measures installed in the fishery have contributed to a lack of known whale deaths in Maine. At a July rally at the Stonington Fish Pier designed to bring awareness of the threat to lobstermen and their fishery, Stonington lobsterman Richard Larrabee Jr. noted that the right whale population has almost doubled since 1990, after lobstermen began protective measures. “Maine’s done its part for 20 years to help the right whale,” he said to loud cheers.

Maine’s political delegation to Washington, D.C. has thrown support behind the lobstermen, attending the rally and calling for more data before any federal regulations are imposed.

Council meetings scheduled for Maine’s seven lobster zones last month were postponed.

“The Commissioner regrets the delays but wants to ensure that DMR develops a proposal for submission to NMFS that reflects a thorough review of all data…,” reads the Department of Marine Resources press release. “The Department remains committed to meeting with industry members before any proposal is formally submitted to NMFS.”