STONINGTON — The sun was blazing hot, but tempers were moderate on Sunday when hundreds of lobstermen and their family members gathered at the Municipal Fish Pier at noon for a rally to protest proposed federal rules aimed at protecting right whales.
The rules would force Maine fishermen to cut by 50 percent the number of lines in Gulf of Maine waters that connect lobster traps on the sea floor to their marker buoys on the surface.
Sunday’s rally drew perhaps 300 fishermen, their family members, other supporters and politicians to Stonington. Some came from as far away as Corea and Winter Harbor and other Downeast ports. Some came from as far to the west as Harpswell on the Midcoast. Many came by boat sporting such hailing ports as Vinalhaven, North Haven, Rockland and Matinicus on their transoms.
“This Governor has your back,” Governor Janet Mills told an assembled crowd that was adamant in its opposition to the rules but never rowdy.
Proposed by NOAA Fisheries, the rules aim to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from injuries caused by entanglements in lobster fishing gear that can often prove fatal.
Lobstermen object to the new rules because, they say, they will make fishing more dangerous but won’t help the whales.
Sunday’s rally was largely organized by Stonington lobsterman Julie Eaton with plenty of help from the town and local fishing industry. The idea for the rally, Eaton said, grew out of suggestions posted on Facebook several weeks ago by lobstermen Murray Thompson of Vinalhaven and Aaron Cabot of North Haven.
On Sunday, Governor Mills, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree all came to the Stonington fish pier and assured the lobstermen of their support in the fight against the NOAA regulations. They were joined by several members of the Maine Legislature including Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington), Sen. Louie Luchini (D-Hancock County), Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Allagash), several members of the Marine Resources Committee and representatives of the Maine Lobster Union, Lobster 207.
“Maine’s entire congressional delegation and Governor Mills stand with you,” Collins said. “This is not a political issue.”
Before coming to the rally, Collins, Mills, Pingree and Golden — together with a handful of lobstermen — gathered at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries for a briefing from University of Maine professor Jeffrey Runge on the science that underpins the lobstermen’s position.
“He’s an authoritative source and he’s given us new facts to present that I think will be very helpful,” Collins said.
Current scientific research indicates that right whales no longer visit the Gulf of Maine, almost certainly because the tiny copepods that are the principal component of the whales’ diet are no longer present. The absence of copepods in the area is primarily, scientists say, because of warming waters in the gulf.
According to Runge, the tiny shrimplike Calanus finmarchicus on which the whales feed congregate in Cape Cod Bay — which was closed to lobster fishing early this spring because of a concentration of right whales — and have moved eastward and northward into Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, where several right whales have died since 2017 either from ship strikes or entanglement in what Canadian authorities have identified as gear used in the snow crab fishery.
“In the past three years there has not been one entanglement (of a right whale) off Maine,” Collins said. “NOAA needs to concentrate on where the whales really are. Now is the time for NOAA to listen to you.”
Rep. Golden, who introduced an amendment in Congress to prevent NOAA from using an untested data tool to asses the risk that fishing gear poses to whales, vowed to continue the fight against the proposed rules even though, he said, some of his House colleagues have taken to calling him “Captain Ahab,” a reference to the fictional whaling captain who pursued a great white whale to his eventual death in the novel Moby Dick.
Rep. Pingree, a longtime resident of the island of North Haven, stressed the importance of lobster fishing to Maine’s economy and to the continued existence of its island communities.
“Many, many years ago,” she said, the community on Criehaven, far out at the mouth of Penobscot Bay, died because the fishing economy could no longer support an island population.
“There’s a right way to do this and a wrong way,” Pingree said. “These regulations aren’t the way.”