Fishermen and conservationists unhappy with new whale protection measures

STONINGTON — The day after new rules for the lobster fishery aimed at preserving the North Atlantic right whale came down from the federal government, Richard Larrabee Jr., an offshore lobsterman, was fuming.

“I’m [mad] as hell,” he said, except he used a stronger word than “mad.” “This makes no sense.”

He wasn’t the only one. Both supporters of Maine’s lobster industry and conservation agencies were displeased with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new rules, though largely for different reasons.

Larrabee, who fishes out of Stonington, called it a textbook example of government overreach and wasn’t based in science. The Center for Biological Diversity, which has been waging legal battles on behalf of the critically endangered species, called them “half measures” that can’t be expected to save the whales.

“This plan is better than nothing and a step in the right direction,” said Kristen Monsell, the center’s Ocean Program legal director, in a statement. “But we’ve already waited far too long to protect North Atlantic right whales from deadly entanglements. It’s time to get all vertical fishing lines out of important right whale habitat immediately and convert to on-demand ropeless fishing gear.”

The rules that came out last week highlights the vast divide between the conservation agencies and Maine fishermen when it comes to right whales, though both seem to agree that the rules won’t save the species. Fishermen say they go too far; conservationists say they don’t go far enough.

The new rules include a seasonal closure of a 967-square-mile tract of prime offshore fishing ground about 30 miles out to sea that runs west of Mount Desert Island to approximately Boothbay. The closure would be from October to January, which Larrabee said are some of the most lucrative months for offshore lobstering.

It goes into effect 30 days after the final rule has been published in the federal register, which hasn’t happened yet, but it is expected to be in place this season.

NOAA estimated that 60 vessels fish in the area, and an additional 60 would be affected when those that do fish in the closure zone move out. Larrabee is one of several Stonington lobstermen who fish in the area, known as Lobster Management Area 1 or LMA1.

“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do yet,” Larrabee said of the upcoming season. He’s heard lobstermen say they’re going to fish it anyway and let the government enforce closure, but he was still digesting things. “Whatever I do, I’m going to stand beside my fellow fishermen.”

Some lobstermen said that NOAA’s figure of about 60 vessels is underestimating the number of fishermen in the area. There isn’t a clear breakdown of who fishes in LMA 1, though most fishermen are expected to be from Zones C, D and E. Paul Anderson, the executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, guessed that a healthy portion were from Zone C, which includes Stonington, the state’s largest lobster port.

The closure has been the most controversial piece of the rule.

The state’s federal legislative delegation spoke out about it with Gov. Janet Mills in the immediate aftermath. On Sept 1, the state’s top fishery official said the decision “relies on model outputs that lack significant corroborating acoustic or sightings data.”

The state and legislators argued that the federal government should consider either trigger options or a more localized closure.

“I strongly believe that (the National Marine Fisheries Service) could have been more targeted in their closure,” wrote Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher. “While the data was clear that an adaptive approach was viable, at the very least the agency could have made this area much smaller.”

There are about 360 right whales left in the world and federal officials say that entanglements with fishing gear are a major contributor to their demise. NOAA estimates that more than 85 percent of the whales have been entangled at least once.

The agency said the new rule, which also includes increasing the number of traps per trawl to reduce the number of persistent vertical lines in the water, weakening the remaining ropes, and adding new gear marking requirements so officials can better tell where gear that whales get entangled in is coming from, would reduce the risk of serious injury or death for the whales by 69 percent.

The New England Aquarium released a statement saying it was disappointed in the rule. The aquarium had previously argued for an 80 percent reduction and said the rule lacked more aggressive measures that would be crucial to saving the species.

The aquarium, like other advocates for the species, called for the implementation of “ropeless” fishing technology that rids the water column of persistent lines that whales could get entangled in. The technology is not yet ready for fishery-wide implementation and fishermen said it is both not feasible and could be dangerous.

Oceana, an organization focused on protecting the ocean, said that NOAA was overly relying on weak rope, which would be sufficient for adult whales to break through, but not juveniles or calves.

Such weak rules could not only leave the whales in harm’s way but could also lead to even further restrictions on the lobster industry if a whale were to be injured.

“There’s no time to waste – the rule must be strengthened immediately with expanded time/area management and effective monitoring if North Atlantic right whales are to survive,” said Whitney Webber, a campaign director with Oceana. “The Biden administration is now responsible for the future of North Atlantic right whales in U.S. waters. Oceana urges the administration to not let extinction of this iconic species be its legacy.”

Like many lobstermen, Larrabee, who fishes in the LMA1 area for most of the year, said he’s never seen a whale there, making the closure, in his eyes, useless in the mission to protect right whales.

“This doesn’t do one thing to save whales,” he said.

Anderson at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries worried that NOAA was making decisions based on old information and the science community needed to do a better job of monitoring current conditions.

“There’s no real hard firm data that the fishing gear in the Gulf of Maine are killing whales,” he said.

Virginia Olsen, another Stonington lobsterman and leader in the Maine Lobstering Union, felt that it would hurt her peers with no benefit to conservation.

“For me, this almost 1,000-acre closed area for traditional fishing is very troubling,” she said. “Honestly, this closed area is going to save as many whales as if we close I-95.”

Effectively announcing the closure a month before it goes into effect was poor, according to Olsen.

“It’s just not enough time,” she said. “That’s really devastating for coastal communities.”

Olsen was bothered by the combination of adding more traps per trawl with inserting weak links into ropes, saying it could be a recipe for danger.

The union is an intervenor in an ongoing federal lawsuit over the right whales and the fishery and she said the groups lawyers were combing through the 196-page rule to mount some sort of response, though she wasn’t sure what form it would be.

Keliher vowed that “this process is far from over” and the state would work to find relief from the “burdensome rules and hold NOAA accountable for the science that is used.”

Several other changes are likely in store for the fishery, as NOAA follows a plan to reduce the risk by a cumulative 98 percent in 10 years.

“Over the next decade, these changes will pose even greater challenges to this vital Maine industry,” Keliher wrote. “I’ll continue to work hard to ensure that federal regulators make use of the best available science and don’t lose sight of the valuable input from Maine lobstermen as this process continues to unfold.”

Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.
Ethan Genter

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