By Penelope Overton
Portland Press Herald
SOUTH PORTLAND — Environmentalists showed up in large numbers last Thursday night to urge federal fishing regulators to defend the endangered right whale against what they claim is the looming extinction threat posed by the Maine lobster industry.
Some of the largest and most powerful animal and environmental groups — including Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. Humane Society and the Conservation Law Foundation — sent representatives to the National Marine Fisheries Service meeting in South Portland.
They urged the fisheries service to take immediate action to protect the species, which now numbers about 400, calling for actions such as offshore fishing closures and ropeless lobster fishing that even a team tasked with protecting the whale had dismissed as too drastic as recently as April.
“It’s important not to debate the facts or divert attention from the real issue at hand: survival of the right whale as a species, and with it the survival of your livelihoods and the healthy fisheries needed to sustain your livelihoods,” said Gina Garey of Portland, state director of Animal Wellness Action.
Garey, an animal behaviorist, was one of several activists who described a right whale’s suffering before succumbing to a fatal entanglement. Ropes cut into the flesh, exhausting it and causing it to either drown or die from a months-long struggle with infection or starvation.
Campaign manager Gib Brogan with Oceana, the world’s largest marine conservation organization, said the NMFS should limit high-impact fishing gear in waters where right whales are known to congregate, and temporarily close areas when right whales are spotted and reopen them when they leave.
“Right whales aren’t playing by the rules,” Brogan said. “They’re hard to predict – where they are going to be in any particular year, any particular season – as they respond to changing oceanographic conditions. The fishery service needs to have the authority to respond to these.”
Pam Ferris-Olson of Freeport warned the crowd: “Remember, extinction is forever.”
This is the fourth meeting the fisheries service has held about the possible impact of proposed right whale rules on the lobster industry in Maine. Sessions in Machias, Ellsworth and Waldoboro drew about 300 people, mostly from lobstering families or businesses that depend on them. On Thursday, about 150 people packed South Portland High School, with the crowd divided between industry and whale defenders.
As they have all week, frustrated lobstermen argued that the NMFS has no proof that Maine lobster gear has killed a right whale. They note the fisheries service is so sure right whales have left the Gulf of Maine to follow the plankton they like to eat into colder waters that it has even stopped flying over Maine waters looking for them.
Despite that, the NMFS wants to cut the number of buoy lines that Maine lobstermen can fish by 50 percent, which would mean a combination of requiring weak rope toppers, reducing the number of traps that each lobsterman can fish and forcing many to place as many as 40 traps to each vertical buoy line.
“Forcing us to go to larger trawls puts my safety and my crew’s safety at risk,” said Matt Gilley, a lobsterman who fishes out of Cundys Harbor. “You’re risking me or my crew getting entangled now in extra rope on deck all to save a whale I’ve never seen in 30 years I’ve been on the ocean.”
A handful of people dared to brave the openly hostile Downeast and midcoast crowds to urge regulators to take action to protect the endangered right whale, calling for drastic reductions in the number of buoy lines fished, seasonal closures or mandatory use of ropeless fishing gear.
Alison Rieser, a retired University of Maine School of Law professor who is a nationally recognized expert in ocean and coastal law, urged the NMFS to consider adopting emergency rules to protect the right whales from entanglement, saying the science is very compelling and would likely win in court.
“I wouldn’t rest on the idea that you will be able to tie this up in court,” Rieser told a fired-up crowd of midcoast lobstermen in Waldoboro Wednesday. “The reason I say that is judges do not like to preside over the extinction of an endangered, especially an iconic, endangered species.”
Scientists believe about 400 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when it bottomed out at 295 whales. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but poor calving, ship strikes and fishing entanglements, especially in Canada, sent its numbers tumbling again.
Regulators claim that even one right death whale a year could doom the species to extinction.
The state’s $485 million-a-year lobster industry is facing a federal mandate to lower the number of buoy lines in the Gulf of Maine by 50 percent to protect the endangered right whale. Lobstermen fear these rules will make their jobs less profitable and more dangerous.
Patrice McCarron, the director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, cites NMFS data showing all trap and pot fishing in the U.S. — which target 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.
In contrast, Canadian snow crab and U.S. ship strikes each account for 31 percent of right whale risk.
In response, the NMFS noted that even a small risk of a serious entanglement injury or death is too much for such a critically endangered species. Although its numbers now are higher than during past declines, it is more at risk because its recent decline happened so fast, and the number of breeding females is so low.
The New England Aquarium has studied 1,462 right whales scarred by entanglements over 35 years. Of those, scientists have found rope left on 110 of the whales. And of that small subset, they have only been able to use the gear to identify the location of the entanglement in 13 cases, or 12 percent.
Of those, only three nonfatal entanglements trace back to Maine’s lobster industry, lobstermen noted. Those three entanglements occurred before 2009, when the industry adopted an earlier round of right whale protections.
Environmentalists accused Maine officials and the lobster industry of politicizing the right whale issue, putting jobs and profits ahead of the welfare of an iconic species on the brink of extinction. Economists estimate the industry pumps $1.6 billion into the state economy and employs up to 19,000 Mainers.
Environmentalists noted whales are crucial to healthy oceans and to Maine’s 36 million annual tourists. Many of those who spoke identified as Mainers and took great care to spell out their ties to the lobster industry, and called on both sides to come together to protect both the whale and the fishery.
“This isn’t about environmental or conservationists versus lobstermen,” said Emily Green of Portland, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. “This is about a real problem that we collectively have as Mainers and New Englanders that we need to figure out a solution to collectively.”
The Maine Department of Marine Resources will recommend a proposal on right whale protections at the end of this month and the fisheries service is expected to enact regulations early next year.