The North Atlantic right whale is on the brink of extinction and efforts to save it may spell the end for another marine mammal: the Maine lobsterman. While the whales would cease to be, the lobstermen could, presumably, reinvent themselves. But the death of this way of life would be an incalculable loss. Lobstering is not just a $1.5-billion economic powerhouse, factoring in the annual catch and the estimated impact on associated industries. It is a culture, a generations-long tradition and a part of the Maine brand we sell to tourists each season. It is also the lifeblood of many small year-round Maine coastal communities that otherwise might become summertime playgrounds — or nothing at all.

Losing all that and still losing the right whale would be a profound tragedy. The federal government is ill-equipped to prove that the sacrifice would not all be for naught. Yet, it must act, both to protect the whales and appease the courts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in its recent draft biological opinion, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, includes a conservation framework that calls for a 98 percent reduction in risk to right whales from fixed gear fisheries over the next decade. For Maine fisheries officials and lobstermen who have long debated how to achieve a 60 percent risk reduction, it is a staggering proposition akin to raising the high jump bar from 6 feet to 10 feet. Trawling up, seasonal closures and weak points in lines would not be enough. Such measures now proposed in the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan to meet the 60 percent risk reduction threshold have been panned by lobsterman and conservationists alike. Lobstermen say they go too far; conservationists say they do not go far enough.

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