Fishing the middle ground to save right whales

By Bill McWeeny

Lobstermen often point out that they do not want to hurt whales, which I know to be true, but the real question is, “Do Maine lobstermen want to help right whales?” The North Atlantic right whale has not been this close to extinction since it was hunted by whalers. Scientists project that by 2050, right whales will no longer swim in their home waters of New England, unless the risks of entanglements and ship strikes are lowered to nearly zero.

There are methods existing today that will significantly reduce these risks but the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has taken years deciding what rules to implement while right whales continue to die. The courts are now involved because the agencies that have the power to enforce lower risks have not done so. These agencies have in some cases ignored the laws required to help save an endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale. Maine lobstermen are resisting any changes to the way they now fish. This decision puts any right whale swimming through Maine waters at great risk of entanglement. Maine lobstermen base this decision on the myth that “Right whales do not exist in Maine.” But it is a fact that right whales have been observed in Maine waters every month of the year. Maine lobstermen can choose to help right whales without harming their businesses just like some lobstermen in Massachusetts have been doing for years now.

In his June 18 letter to the editor titled “Face the Facts,” Russell Wray tells the true story. There is plenty of scientific evidence showing that right whales need the help of fishermen if they are not going to go extinct. The press in Maine (as well as the congressional cohort) has downplayed that evidence and gone along with the idea that there are no right whales in Maine waters, giving the impression that Maine lobstermen are being singled out and punished. It is just the opposite! All pot fisheries on the East Coast are being asked to reduce risks for right whales.

In January of this year, an entangled right whale named Dragon had gear on her that could have easily come from Maine. But, like so many other whales, Dragon could not be disentangled and she is most likely decaying on the bottom now. With a buoy lodged in her mouth that prevented her from feeding, Dragon suffered for months from pain and starvation. I wonder why the Maine press did not report Dragon’s story in January like many other newspapers in New England did. How can Mainers know the truth when the Maine press fails to report information about how bad the entanglement of right whales really is?

It is frustrating to hear “I’ve never seen a right whale in Maine” over and over again when there is evidence that there are right whales in Maine waters every single month of the year. Just because you do not see something does not mean it is not there. (Think of mountain lions in Maine. They are here, we just do not see them.) Right whales are getting entangled all the time in all waters up and down the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. There is evidence that other large whales like humpbacks, minkes, and fins are being entangled too. All these whales are suffering, but the right whales are suffering the most. With only around 100 reproductive females in the species, they cannot afford a single death per year if their population is going to start increasing again.

Methods to reduce endline impact on right whales exist and are used today by some lobstermen. There are two proven ways that Maine lobstermen can help the North Atlantic right whale and other large whales.

First, fishermen could reduce the risks of entanglement by using ropes with a lower breaking-strength so that large whales can break free before becoming severely entangled or injured. Also, if whales can break free of gear, then less lobster gear will be towed and lost. Ropes that most lobstermen use currently break at close to 4,000 pounds. Although whales have a lot of power, the data shows that they cannot always break a rope of this strength. It has been shown that ropes that break at about 1,700 pounds will allow most whales, including juvenile large whales to part the gear more quickly. Studies also show almost all gear can be pulled with rope tensions lower than 1,000 pounds pressure. This means that 1,700-pound rope would be more than enough for what lobstermen need to pull their gear.

One solution that was developed by fishermen in Massachusetts is to put a series of 1,700-pound sleeves into the endlines so they will break when a whale gets entangled. If the sleeves are installed in existing ropes 40 feet apart that will ensure the best protection for the whale. Preliminary studies show that a rope with multiple sleeves will break at the nearest sleeve to the pull. That way a whale would have the least amount of gear on it if it got entangled and the least amount of gear would be lost by the fishermen. Installing and using sleeves is already being done by a group of lobstermen in Massachusetts. They have been using them (every 40 feet) in their endlines for four years. They report no difference in gear loss or hauling.

Another solution to further reduce risk from endlines is to fish half as many traps. Now, this sounds like taking away half the catch, but that is not true. Multiple peer-reviewed studies show that Maine lobstermen fish way too much effort for the size of their catch. The most recent study by Myers and Moore, published this June in Marine Policy, shows that Canadian lobster fishermen catch 3.7 times more lobsters per trap than their counterparts in Maine. That means Canadians fish with less traps, less bait and less fuel. Expending fewer resources adds up to more profit.

Given the current situation with lower demand for lobster and reduced fishing effort, Maine fishermen should evaluate how their catch has changed. The peer-reviewed science shows they just might catch as many as before with less gear and less effort. If Commissioner Kelleher ruled a reduction in the number of traps fished right now and mandated the use of 1,700-pound ropes everywhere, we could meet NOAA’s current request to reduce entanglement risks by 60 percent in Maine. This would prevent the need to fight an uphill and losing battle in the courts, which will review scientific evidence that is overwhelmingly in favor of saving right whales.

Maine lobstermen should let go of the myth that right whales do not swim in Maine waters. Instead, they should fish fewer pots and use 1,700-pound sleeves every 40 feet in their endlines in the gear they do fish. If they ask NOAA for monetary help with the sleeves, they should receive it. By doing these two things, Maine lobstermen would likely be compliant with the NOAA’s call for a 60 percent reduction in risk. More importantly, Maine lobstermen will be saving money on bait and gear and fuel while maintaining a good catch.

Reducing the number of traps in the water and installing 1,700-pound sleeves for the rest of the traps is a win-win for everybody! Let’s use some common sense here to save the lobstermen from potential closures and save the right whales from entanglement and extinction. Lobstermen can help the right whales if they want to. At the same time, they can help themselves by being more efficient at doing what they do best.


Bill McWeeny of Brooksville has studied the North Atlantic right whale for 37 years and is the principal investigator for The CALVIN Project.


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