ELLSWORTH – Maine has more than 6,000 licensed lobstermen. If the 100 or so who gathered at Ellsworth High School Tuesday evening to discuss proposed whale protection rules are a representative sample, most of those lobstermen are angry.
The fishermen gathered for a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scoping session on proposed measures to protected endangered right whales. The rules would require a 50 percent cut in the number of vertical buoy lines in the water.
“You’re dealing not just with our livelihoods but with the life blood of our communities,” Stonington lobsterman Julie Eaton told the NMFS representatives. With earlier whale protection efforts, Eaton said, “We’ve done everything you’ve asked us to do, but this ask is way too big. People will die.”
Scientists believe that there are no more than about 400 northern right whales still living in the waters off the Atlantic seaboard. The whale population has been in decline since 2010 and, over the past few years, whale deaths caused by ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear have outnumbered births.
Federal law requires that National Marine Fisheries Service reduce the impact of commercial fishing on endangered right whales to a point at which fewer than one animal per year dies or suffers serious injury as a result of fishing activity. Fisheries scientists determined that it would require a 60 percent reduction in the risk posed by gear used in the New England trap and pot fisheries, primarily for lobster and crab, to reach that goal.
After extensive debate last spring, NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team recommended that NMFS require Maine lobstermen to reduce the number of vertical buoy lines in the water by 50 percent and to use rope with a weak breaking strength on gear set outside the three-mile limit of state waters.
The rules would require lobstermen to fish more traps on a single buoy line. Boats could be required to fish as many as four traps per line in state waters and, under one proposal, as many as 40 traps on a single trawl in deep, offshore waters.
Fishermen say they support efforts to protect large whales — especially gear-marking requirements that would help identify where whales actually became entangled with fishing gear — but that the NMFS rules are misguided. Scientists say that changes in water temperature have driven the whales’ primary food source, tiny copepods known as Calanus finmarchicus, out of the Gulf of Maine and into Canadian waters.
Many lobstermen say that the whales followed the food and the real risks lie in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, where 23 large whales have died from ship strikes or entanglement with fishing gear since 2015.
Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings told the NMFS representatives at the meeting that island communities such as hers have no economic alternatives to the lobster fishing industry. Anything that threatens the lobster fishery threatens the survival of communities such as Stonington, especially more remote communities such as Swan’s Island, Vinalhaven and Matinicus.
Beals Island lobsterman and Maine Lobster Union President Rocky Alley echoed that thought.
“We’re being thrown under the bus, but we are not the problem,” he said. “This could affect us statewide. Our small communities will dry up and blow away.”
NMFS will hold two more scoping sessions in Maine this week. A draft Environmental Impact Statement should be ready for public comment sometime late this year and a proposed final rule is expected to be published early in 2020.
NMFS will accept written comments on its proposal by email or regular mail.
Submit all electronic comments by email to [email protected] using the subject line “Comments on Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan Scoping.”
Submit written comments to Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator, National Marine Fisheries Service, 55 Great Republic Drive, Gloucester, MA 01930-2276. Mark the outside of the envelope: Comments on Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan Scoping.