About 400 North Atlantic right whales remain in existence, and six of them died last month. But the Maine lobster industry says it has little if anything to do with that, and new regulations designed to save the endangered right whale population will cripple the industry.
Marine biologists say the two most lethal dangers to the whales are collisions with vessels and entanglement in ropes. New federal rules developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) call for a 50 percent reduction in the amount of rope lobster fishermen use, which supports the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) target of reducing harm to right whales by 60 percent to 80 percent.
The lobster industry and its supporters rallied this month to protest the new regulations, which they claim will put an undue physical and financial burden on lobster fishermen while doing nothing to change the situation of right whales. Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills attended the rally.
The Maine lobster industry claims that it has implemented measures such as using ropes that sink rather than float on the surface, and that in any case reported whale deaths have occurred off the coasts of Canada and Massachusetts, not Maine.
A group of Maine members of Congress asked President Donald Trump to intervene. In a letter sent to the president on July 10, Maine’s two senators – Collins and Angus King – along with Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingry complained that fisherman in their state had already substantially complied with restrictions despite what they said is a lack of evidence that prior practices contributed to right whale decline.
“NOAA is moving forward with mandated vertical trap lines that may look good on paper, but are unlikely to prevent whale deaths,” they wrote, requesting a meeting with the president or his staff to discuss the issue.
The Maine Lobsterman’s Association on its website outlined steps the industry has taken to protect right whales since 1997, when there were only 295 known to exist. These include markers on buoys lines to identify where ropes and gear were connecting with the whales, installing a weak link on flotation devices so that a whale can break free if ensnared, removing all fishing gear if three whales are sighted in the area, and sinking lines that are attached to lobster traps.
The industry says that lobster fisherman are already facing a tough season because of high fuel prices and scarce bait because of herring-fishing quotas, and the proposed regulations just add an additional layer of hardship with little to no evidence that they will have the intended result.