The Maine Lobster Industry and Right Whales

This op-ed piece appeared in the December 2018 issue of Right Whale News, an independent forum  and publication of The Associated Scientists of Woods Hole.  It is published online through the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

The F/V Sea Hawk motors out of Spruce Head harbor. Photo by Mark Fleming Photography

The Maine lobster industry has been actively engaged in efforts to protect right whales since the Take Reduction Team was formed in 1996. We recognize that right whales are in crisis and remain committed to doing our part to aid in the species’ recovery, as we have for more than two decades. During that time, Maine officials and lobstermen have implemented many measures to reduce the risk the lobster fishery poses to right whales. We are proud of our very high compliance rate, which demonstrates our commitment to protecting right whales. There is no protection for whales without buy-in from fishermen.

Many Maine lobstermen feel unfairly blamed for the sudden decline in the right whale population. They have good reason. The recently-released Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) Technical Memo North Atlantic Right Whales- Evaluating Their Recovery Challenges in 2018 demonstrates a lack of understanding of the available data about the Maine lobster fishery and is unbalanced in its consideration of the issues that threaten the survival of the species. The lobster industry had high hopes that the Technical Memo would take a holistic approach to the stressors and threats facing right whales to provide the proper context on how best to achieve the species’ recovery. Instead, it erodes the trust that has been built over the past 20 years between the lobster industry and the federal government as both worked together to protect the whales.

In portraying the right whale’s “recovery challenges,” the memo does not reference any other fixed gear fisheries regulated under the ALWTRP or go into any detail on the role that Canadian fisheries and ship strikes have played in the spike in right whale mortality since 2016. Instead it points to the Maine lobster fishery as a primary culprit, based solely on its status as the largest fixed gear fishery in the region. It does not reference NMFS entanglement data from 2000 to 2018 which shows only one confirmed entanglement in Maine lobster gear in 2002, which did not result in a serious injury or mortality.

Instead, it creates hypotheses to fill in where it was unable to stretch the data to support its preconceived case. Recent data show that right whales have shifted out of the Gulf of Maine, and therefore the probability of interactions with the Maine lobster gear, in fact, have decreased. Further, data on the shift in timing, distribution and abundance of right whale prey species indicate that right whales in the Gulf of Maine would be transiting rather than feeding. One of the unfortunate consequences of the ill-researched and poorly argued memo is that many real questions remain unanswered.

As if it to aggravate the situation further, the whale research community recently sent a letter to NMFS advocating that the agency cease permitting any right whale tagging activities. At a time when right whale distribution patterns have shifted dramatically and fewer right whales are sighted each year, it seems incredible that any researcher would choose to lose the opportunity to learn more about where these beleaguered animals actually are. If current tagging technology is inadequate, the science community should be supporting the research and development of a better tag.

The lobster fishery is only one part of a very complex problem – the climate has changed, the ocean has warmed dramatically, and these changes have had significant negative impacts on right whales. Simply increasing regulation on Maine lobstermen will not ensure that right whales find adequate high-quality prey. It will not give any insight into where a large majority of right whales currently travel and group together. It will not keep right whales from swimming through unregulated Canadian fishing gear. And it will not ensure that right whales successfully reproduce. While fishing practices may prove to be a part of the solution, any new regulations must be proportionate to the risk posed by each fishery.

Rather than working with the fishing industry, many have turned to emotional rhetoric predicting the species’ imminent extinction to advocate for ropeless fishing and universal adoption of weakened ropes. While unproven ideas may be successful fundraising tools, they do not solve the very real issues raised by the fishing community and are no substitute for serious stakeholder-involvement. From the lobster industry’s perspective, “working together” should not be synonymous with “do what we say,” especially when the solutions come from those with no commercial fishing experience. Instead of bringing fishermen to the table, this antagonistic approach drives the stakeholder groups further apart.

In Maine, we have been monitoring Canadian whale protection efforts closely. Like many, the Maine lobster industry was relieved to see the Canadian government implement aggressive right whale protection measures in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (GSL). Canadian fishermen have been fishing heavy gear amidst large aggregations of feeding whales with devasting results. Eight of the 19 entanglement-related serious injuries and mortalities between 2016 and 2018 were attributed to Canadian snow crab gear. We note too that many Canadian fixed-gear fisheries that operate geographically and temporally in (potential) right whale areas, are not included in the Canadian protection measures. Lastly, like the U.S. offshore lobster fishery, Canada’s offshore lobstering area is open year-round.

With so many similarities between the U.S. and Canadian lobster fisheries, it is striking that floating groundlines, long banned in the U.S., are still legal in Canada. Moreover, with the exception of the Gulf of St Lawrence snow crab and lobster fisheries, Canadian fishing gear is not marked. This omission from the Canadian management plan is particularly significant because U.S. managers hold our fishermen accountable for entanglements from “unknown” origins. Data from preliminary analysis of gear removed from right whales indicates the majority of rope removed from right whales over the past five years is 1/2” in diameter or larger – rope rarely rigged as vertical lines by Maine lobstermen.

Canada has a long way to go to implement comprehensive right whale protection. If you translate Without full involvement on the part of the Canadians – risk reduction from fishing gear is simply not possible. These endangered animals need and deserve equal protection on both sides of the border.

Due to ongoing lawsuits and media reports in the U.S., Maine lobstermen have been painted as the villains, and their long history of whale protection efforts and regulatory compliance has gone largely unrecognized. Such scapegoating is counter-productive. Maine fishermen remain committed to doing more, and we hope at a minimum, Canada will ban floating line at the surface and adopt a gear marking scheme for all of their fixed gear fisheries. Any fishery that may interact with right whales must do its part to help save right whales.

We all know that the right whales are under siege from environmental as well as human threats. The track record of Maine lobstermen over the past two decades with regard to protecting right whales has truly been exemplary. But without a renewed sense of confidence in a stakeholder process dedicated to evidence-based solutions, and without a demonstration of commitment to change on the part of Canada toward its own fixed gear fisheries, imposing additional regulations on Maine lobstermen will not save right whales.

Patrice McCarron, Executive Director, Maine Lobstermen’s Association