“The farmer and the cowman should be friends,” according to Richard Rodgers’ lyrics in “Oklahoma!” Although they may step on one another’s toes in the pursuit of their respective trades, the song contends, they need not be enemies.
Can a similar peace pact be visited upon Maine’s lobstermen and the advocates of whale safety? They sit at opposite ends of the table, a table where the centerpiece is an arrangement of restrictions to fishing gear intended to reduce harm to whales. Stepping on one another’s toes is a constant.
Generations of Maine lobstermen have worked the waters off the rocky coast. More recently, scientists and regulators have studied the impact, occasionally fatal, of fishing gear entanglement and whale safety.
The bridge over these troubled waters is the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The DMR is often a model of how to balance competing interests and manage conflict within constituent groups. Still, the interplay with federal regulators, especially on the whale issue, stirs up divisions, cultural as much as economic. Researchers, whale watchers and even yachtsmen are on one side. Fishermen with anti-regulators bumper stickers on their trucks are on the other.
It’s an accomplishment just having fishermen and their advocates at the table with the regulators and scientists.
More lobstermen are fishing offshore than were 5 or 10 years ago. Scientists look out at the gear and worry, as there have been dramatic whale entanglements in the Gulf of Maine in recent years.
State regulators and others are working on gathering better data on where fishing gear is going, where the whales are, and thus where the most interaction is likely to occur. Their goal is to prevent, or at least reduce, human activities that jeopardize the health of any animal population.
The issue of endangered right whales leapt to the top of the news cycle in 2017. Twenty of the animals died in 2017 and 2018, more than 4 percent of the population. Of those deaths, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), five were from ship strikes, seven are known or suspected to be from gear entanglement and eight are undetermined. And, while marine mammals move independently of state and national boundaries, none of those deaths was near Maine. Nine were in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, three in Newfoundland, seven in Massachusetts and one in Virginia.
“Maine has rope in the water, so we are actively engaged in the plan, but the data do not appear to show that it is Maine lobster gear causing serious injury and mortality [in right whales],” Patrice McCarron, longtime head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said earlier this year. “Since 2016, most [deaths from entanglement] were confirmed in Canadian snow crab gear or the gear was unknown.”
Three cheers for the fishermen who continue to show up and negotiate in good faith, despite years of being blamed for bad news that’s not their fault.