Whale of a problem

The Department of Marine Resources is embarking on another round of meetings allowing Maine lobster fishermen to have their say on proposed regulations intended to reduce the risk to endangered right whales from fishing gear.

At an earlier meeting held in June at Trenton Elementary School, someone had placed homemade signs along the driveway reading “Ship strikes kill whales, not Maine fishermen.”

The sign-maker had a point. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) data shows all trap and pot fishing in the United States — which includes lobster, crab, whelk, scup, black sea bass and eels — is to blame for just 4 percent of human risk to right whales over the last decade, while Canadian snow crab fishing and U.S. ship strikes each account for 31 percent of right whale risk.

At the time, state regulators were seeking input on the least painful way to implement a proposed rule that would require removing 50 percent of endlines (vertical ropes that connect a string of lobster traps on the sea bottom to a buoy at the surface). That would, according to a risk model developed by federal regulators, amount to a 60 percent reduction in risk to the whales.

That target had been agreed to at an April meeting by a group that includes Maine stakeholders, including fishermen. But they were backed into a corner, working to avoid other, even less palatable options such as large closed areas and ropeless fishing.

On closer inspection, Maine fishermen and their advocates realized they have big questions about the risk reduction plan and the model used to develop it.

In the months since, the issue has gained political momentum, and now all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation say they oppose the rule and question the risk model.

In July, Governor Janet Mills announced: “Based on the lack of evidence connecting the Maine lobster fishery to recent right whale mortalities and the risk of negatively and profoundly altering our fisheries because of these pending regulations, I have directed Commissioner [Pat] Keliher to evaluate a risk reduction target for Maine that is commensurate to any actual risk posed by the Maine lobster industry — not the 60 percent risk reduction target assigned by the NMFS.”

Keliher has said the state reserves the right to sue the federal government over any eventual rule that it feels goes too far and poses an undue burden. But, he also has pointed out that courts tend to defer to the federal agency in such cases.

So it’s in everyone’s interest to stay focused on what can, reasonably, be done. The Department of Marine Resources is at work on an alternative proposal that will be rolled out in the coming weeks. If it doesn’t go far enough, or if it’s too complicated, it likely won’t be accepted by the feds. That could trigger more drastic action under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, or both.

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