Collision course

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.

Ropeless fishing technology exists but is nowhere near the point of being rolled out industry-wide with many questions remaining about safety, efficacy and cost. Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, likened the technological conversion to going from a Model T to a Tesla overnight. In Maine, where traps are often set close together, it would be particularly challenging. The DMR estimates the price tag of converting the entire fleet could easily top half a billion dollars. And that’s if it works.

There is no question that whales are becoming entangled. Scientists believe more than 85 percent have been snared in fishing gear at least once. More than half have been entangled multiple times. With fewer than 400 remaining, every right whale death could pose catastrophic to the species. Injured females that survive entanglement or vessel strike may not be strong enough to reproduce. Some die prolonged, painful deaths. On Feb. 28, a whale known as “Cottontail” was found dead off the coast of Myrtle Beach. He had been seen entangled off Nantucket this past October.

But there is not enough available data to assess the Maine lobster fishery’s true risk to whales. Since an unusual mortality event was declared in 2017, thirty-four dead stranded whales have been reported. Of those, 21 were in Canada and 13 in the United States. None of the right whale deaths have been tied to Maine lobstermen. With some 400,000 vertical lines in the waters off Maine, it would be foolhardy to say the industry is risk-free. Yet proposed conservation plans burden the state’s lobstermen with trying to fix a problem that it is not at all clear they created.

Without that evidence, requiring Maine lobstermen to reinvent themselves — possibly right out of existence — is unfair.