AUGUSTA — As drivers head through Massachusetts to Vacationland on their way to scenic Mount Desert Island and the wonders of Acadia National Park, they may see a sight that would get a lobsterman’s blood boiling.
Mainers Guarding Right Whales, a nonprofit organization that says its mission is to help save the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale from extinction, has launched a new campaign with a billboard that asks, “Is your lobster whale-safe?”
Readers are prompted to text a number that tells them that there is no certification program that ensures Maine lobster is “whale-safe” and that the organization calls for the implementation of “ropeless” fishing, a technology that takes vertical ropes out of the water column. The technology has not made its way to wide commercial use.
“We believe if we can educate and inform travelers about the near extinction of right whales and the cause, they will take action and help protect the whales,” said Barbara Skapa, the founder and executive director of Mainers Guarding Right Whales. “The fishing industry in Maine has a long history of adapting to change in the face of new challenges, and we believe with the right support it will do just that. The biggest challenge is that ropeless technology is costly and requires sustained governmental subsidization to equip Maine’s lobster fisheries.”
The first billboard went up on Route 1 in Massachusetts this week. It will run until the middle of the month. After that, a second will go up for the remainder of August on Interstate 95.
Skapa said that engagement with the text line so far has been steady and that she hoped the billboard would help inform travelers coming to the land of lobster and have them engage in an effort to make things safer for whales.
Virginia Olsen, a Stonington lobsterman and board member of Lobster 207, said the industry is whale-safe and has the Fairtrade certification. In her eyes, the billboard was a scare tactic aimed at tourists who want to come to Maine on vacation and enjoy the state’s lobster.
“They’re trying to scare people into not eating lobster and that’s just unfortunate,” she said.
The right whale population has shrunk to about 360 individuals. Federal officials have cited entanglements with fishing gear in the water as a major contributor to their deaths.
Maine’s lobster fishery uses traps on the seafloor that are connected to a buoy on the water’s surface with a vertical rope, though lobstermen ardently maintain that they are not the ones causing the death of right whales.
“Maine lobstermen have always gone above and beyond to try and help and do whatever we can for North Atlantic right whales,” Olsen said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to release new rules for the fishery to help protect the whales after the agency was sued over the lobster fishery operating in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Mainers Guarding Right Whales also encouraged people to buy lobsters from scuba divers, which isn’t legal in Maine but is allowed in Massachusetts, and consider avoiding lobster until it is certified as “whale-safe.”
A recent Pew Charitable Trusts survey found that almost 9 in 10 people said it’s important that the federal government protect right whales. Three quarters of respondents who said they favor regulations that prioritize economic growth over the protection of endangered species also said they believed it was important that the government effectively protect right whales.
The Trusts also found that 84 percent of people who eat lobster said they would be willing to pay more if new fishing gear, or regulations, to decrease the risk of right whale entanglement increased the price of lobster.
Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher called the billboard a “PR stunt” that ignores the state lobster industry’s commitment to protecting right whales and said it oversimplifies the complex challenges of transitioning to ropeless fishing.
Even proponents of ropeless fishing have said it’s not ready for “primetime” and fishermen have cited concerns about the cost and how it could work in an everyday fishing setting.
“As I’ve said before, ropeless fishing technology is not currently a viable option,” Keliher said. “The technology must be further developed to ensure that all fixed and mobile gear fleets can locate ropeless lobster gear to avoid conflict and lost gear.”
Enforcement of fisheries with ropeless gear also needs to be worked out, according to Keliher.
“Marine Patrol will need to be equipped with technology to locate, retrieve and set back gear, an enforcement action which is critical to the management of this valuable resource,” he said. “DMR will be engaged in efforts to examine this technology and to ensure that these problems are fully addressed.”