A whale of a problem

No one is happy with the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration’s new right whale protection plan. That includes Maine’s congressional delegation, governor, 151 Republican, Democratic and independent state legislators, environmentalists and lobstermen.

For those fighting to save the critically endangered whales, the measures are too little too late. “Better than nothing” was among the faint praise. For lobstermen, the rules go too far. They say the changes will hurt the industry while doing nothing to help whales.

As the Portland Press Herald points out, sometimes it’s a sign of a good compromise when people on both sides of an issue are unhappy.

But more often, universal dissatisfaction tells you that the deal is no good.

Among other measures, NOAA’s rule would ban traditional lobster fishing in a 950-square-mile zone from Mount Desert Island to eastern Casco Bay during the months of October through January. Never mind that the last documented entanglement in Maine lobster gear was in 2004, and that there’s research to back up fishermen’s claims that whales’ feeding grounds have shifted as the Gulf of Maine warms. Moving into new territories puts whales at even greater risk because existing protection measures may not cover those new grounds. A lot of scientific assumptions are made about where whales are and when. Meanwhile, climate change is rewriting the script.

Since June 2017, thirty dead North Atlantic right whales have been observed, 21 in Canada and nine in the U.S. There are about 368 of the whales left on the planet. Every death — or injury that could prevent a whale from thriving and reproducing — could spell further disaster for the species.

What’s less clear is whether the new rules will do anything to prevent it.

Instead of responding to specific documented risks, the seasonal closure encompasses more territory than necessary for longer than needed. It will displace a relatively small number of lobstermen who will likely move their gear elsewhere, causing potential conflicts and crowding.

“Ropeless” fishing, expensive and still experimental, is not a viable solution. While lobstermen should certainly be part of the effort to see if the technology could be practical one day, that day is not today. And it won’t be in October when the closure begins.

The rule is only the beginning of a plan to slash the risk the fishery poses to whales by 98 percent by 2030. Would regulators perceive continued whale mortalities as proof that these latest measures aren’t working, or a justification to make them more strict?

Law and conscience demand we act to protect right whales. Common sense says those actions should have a reasonable expectation of success. NOAA should heed the outcry and revisit its new rules with that in mind.

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