The empire strikes back! That would be the Maine coast lobster empire. Emerging federal regulations to reduce endangered right whale mortality have been threatening the fishery for over a year, and anxious fishing communities have finally gotten the attention of Maine’s elected officials.
Last Sunday, lobstermen, their friends and families gathered on the pier in Stonington to let loose about regulations, bureaucrats and the horse they rode in on. They came from all over the Downeast coast, several hundred strong, and stood in a baking sun for two hours, first to bear witness to the shortcomings of federal research and then to listen to a star-studded roster of Maine politicians pledge their support for the lobster industry.
Though lobstermen sometimes feel powerless in the face of the federal bureaucracy, there was substantial political firepower assembled on the fish pier. Sen. Susan Collins and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden were there. Governor Janet Mills, whose grandparents and great-grandparents lived in Stonington, was there.
State Senate President Troy Jackson of Allagash quickly assured the crowd that although he is a logger, not a fisherman, he knows what it is like to have to stand up to regulators, most of whom have no direct experience in either industry. Congressional Reps. Pingree and Golden described being cast as “whale haters” because they were advocating slowing down the regulatory process to allow time for peer review of the science on which new regulations are being based.
State Sens. Louie Luchini and Marianne Moore, from Hancock and Washington counties, respectively, were there. Reps. Billy Bob Faulkingham (Winter Harbor) and Stonington’s own Genevieve McDonald, both lobstermen themselves, were there. Reps. William Tuell (East Machias), Sherm Hutchins (Penobscot) and Lydia Blume (York) were there.
To the Maine elected officials, the crowd was attentive and appreciative. To the bureaucrats of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), they were merciless. Proposed “take reduction” rules will dig deeply into Maine fishing practices without benefiting right whales. Fisherman after fisherman said that in all their years fishing traditional Maine grounds they had never so much as seen a right whale.
The congressional delegation referenced recent scientific research that indicated copepods, a small organism that comprises a significant part of a right whale’s diet, are not found in any abundance where Maine lobstermen set their traps. Right whales are expert at searching out colonies of copepods, and at their size are able to travel huge distances to do so. They give short shrift to areas where one of their basic nutrients cannot be found.
One aspect of this debate that rankles fishermen the most is that it allegedly pitches lobstermen against environmentalists. Speaker after speaker cited the conservation rules Maine lobstermen support, and in some cases helped to write. Among them are the v-notch, minimum and maximum size limits, trap limits and a prohibition on taking egg-bearing lobsters.
Now the feds want to limit the number of “end lines,” the vertical lines that connect a lobster pot to a surface buoy. The number of end lines depends on the number of pots on a trawl, connected to each other and fished as a single string. One pot with one end line means 800 lines for a full legal complement of 800 traps. Fishermen who fish pairs (two on one line) are already 50 percent down from what is now legal, with two pots for every end line.
So how about requiring four, or even more, traps on a trawl? That would be a 75 percent (or more) reduction in end lines. But it’s not that easy. An empty trap is heavy enough, but full of lobster it is more so. String four or more of those together and you are putting the smaller boats at risk when that trawl is being hauled to the surface. The weight is capable of rolling a boat, especially when there is a sea running.
Maine fishermen have been universally willing to accept management measures that bring benefit to the ecosystem. Asked to accept rules they see as arbitrary because they have not yet been proven effective, the fishing community is likely to plant its collective feet, fold its arms and resist.
This is where it stands now. Republicans, Democrats, independents, town officials, bait dealers, marine supply dealers, grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants and the many other businesses dependent on a healthy lobster fishery are standing shoulder to shoulder, asking NOAA to explain why they expect compliance with rules that hurt everyone and do not help right whales.
If it takes a village, this village showed up in force in Stonington with a message for NOAA. When you can prove the validity of your management rules, we’re with you. Otherwise, Maine stands as one to prevent unreasonable restrictions on our signature fishery.