One of the biggest issues facing Maine’s lobster industry is the plight of the North Atlantic right whale. The MLA has been working on this issue since 1997 when the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) was formed. Over the past 20 years, Maine lobstermen have implemented many measures to protect whales.
Check out this video about Right Whales and Maine lobstermen
According to federal scientists, the right whale population has been in decline since 2010, exacerbated by 20 right whale deaths in Canada since 2014. To aid right whale recovery, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is demanding changes to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (whale plan). In April 2019, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) set a very aggressive risk reduction target requiring new whale protection measures to reduce serious injury and mortality to right whales by 60%. This risk reduction must be in addition to protections already afforded to right whales through the current whale plan.
Maine’s TRT representatives were able to ensure that proposed measures will not include lobster fishing closures or ropeless fishing for Maine. However, many in the environmental community continue to push for more draconian measures. A senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation commented that “Reducing and weakening the lines in the water is a start, but we need to go much further, much faster. Appropriate closures and ropeless fishing need to be part of the solution.”
There are two federal laws which require Maine lobstermen to protect endangered large whales and aid in the species’ recovery.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, North Atlantic right whales are designated as a strategic stock and the lobster fishery has been determined to have the potential to interact with these whales. Whale protection measures including weak links, sinking groundlines, trawling up and gear marking, have been implemented through the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan under the MMPA.
Under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, NMFS is required to conduct a consultation to determine whether federally permitted activities, such as commercial fishing, jeopardize the right whale population. NMFS began work on the consultation in October 2018 which will result in the publication of a Biological Opinion based on the status of species, description of federally permitted activities, and an effects analysis. Several environmental groups filed suit against NMFS over the need for a new biological opinion on the lobster fishery in 2018. The court case, which is before a judge in the U.S. Court in the District of Columbia, is ongoing. The MLA has intervened in this case. The date for release of the Biological Opinion is anticipated later in 2019.
What’s the time line?
ASMFC has established a lobster and Jonah crab fishery control date of April 29, 2019 for LCMA 1 to notify current state and federal permit holders and any potential new entrants to the fishery that eligibility to participate in the commercial fishery in the future may be affected by the person’s or vessel’s past participation and associated documentation of landings, effort, and/or gear configuration prior to the control date. The Commission will recommend NOAA Fisheries establish the same control date for federal waters of LCMA 1. NMFS has proposed this control date for federal lobster permit holders.
1/24/2020: After a busy 2019 with DMR Whale meetings in June and November and NOAA meetings in August, things remain status quo at the Federal level for now. The Biological Opinion is expected out sometime this late winter, and final rules from NMFS are expected to be put forth this spring. Because rule-making requires a public comment period, new rules are not likely to be in place until 2021.
However it is important to note that there is a wild card: any determination from the court case currently in the Massachusetts court could take place once a ruling is in place.
What’s going on now?
November 8, 2019 – The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) voted not to support the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) whale plan because it seeks reductions that exceed the documented risk posed by the Maine lobster fishery as demonstrated in MLA’s analysis of NMFS data (see August 31 Letter). The MLA conducted a thorough analysis of fishing gear removed from entangled right whales which revealed that lobster is the least prevalent gear. The MLA is also concerned the state’s plan creates unresolved safety and operational challenges for some sectors of the lobster industry.
The MLA commends DMR for its diligence in listening to the concerns of the industry and firmly believes that the state’s latest plan is a tremendous improvement over the options presented in June. The MLA will continue to provide constructive feedback to DMR and work with our members to draft a whale protection plan to address the varying risk to right whales across the Maine lobster fishery while minimizing the operational, safety and economic concerns identified by MLA’s members.
MLA remains committed to playing its part in a comprehensive, effective whale conservation plan that enables right whales to recover and thrive.
The MLA is working tirelessly to protect this amazing fishery. You can help support our work by becoming a member or by donating to the Legal Defense Fund. This fund is designated to pay the costs associated with battling any unfair and devastating rules.
January 2020 – Maine DMR has submitted their proposal to NOAA and is waiting to hear if this proposal has been accepted. (See story at the right.)
Letters are listed newest to oldest
In 2002, the MLA documented the gear used in the lobster fishery and how it differs along the coast in “Lobster Pot Gear Configurations in the Gulf of Maine”. this resource has been extremely helpful in educating management groups on how Maine lobstermen fish. Please contact us if you would like a copy.