Editor’s Note: To many federal and state fisheries managers, and to most people in the lobster industry, the name Max Strahan conjures images of a fanatic determined to put an end to lobster fishing in the name of saving endangered right whales from extinction. Over more than two decades, Strahan has filed several federal lawsuits aimed at forcing NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to adopt stricter whale protection measures and last summer, in a separate law suit, he persuaded a U.S. District Court judge to issue an order that bars state regulators from issuing further licenses for lobster fishing using traps rigged with vertical buoy lines in Massachusetts waters. Last week, Strahan gave notice to NMFS and the Department of Marine Resources that he would seek similar relief in a federal lawsuit he intends to file in Maine, probably before the year is out.
On Friday, Strahan phoned Islander Maritime Editor Stephen Rappaport from his office in New Hampshire and spoke for more than an hour about his right whale protection efforts. Strahan’s comments have been lightly edited for clarity and continuity.
BLUE HILL – “The ESA is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, it won’t be strong.”
That statement, perhaps more than anything he says in fisheries meetings or the charges about the purported evils of lobster fishing he makes in court papers seems to sum up the first principle that drives Richard Max Strahan to action. Over the past two decades, he has filed countless federal lawsuits, surprisingly well-drafted for the pauper he claims to be.
“I’m a scientist and a very ethical and moral person,” Strahan said, claiming that, of 330 million U.S. citizens, he was the only one to file individual suits under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). “The life around me is a big deal to me. I have a duty to my civil society to protect the public interest. That’s what I do.”
Strahan said he grew up on a farm “somewhere around the area” of New Hampshire and, as a young man, was interested in outdoor activities such as hiking and rock climbing. That led to his interest in wildlife preservation and eventually his efforts to save the endangered spotted owl in the forests of California and Oregon.
Strahan filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the birds under the ESA and ultimately the petition was accepted, the owls listed and much of the Pacific timber industry put out of business.
“I’m a scientist. I’m also a revolutionary,” Strahan said.
According to Strahan, only five percent of the vertebrate animals that survive on earth can be considered wildlife. The other 95 percent are humans and their domestic animals. “That’s a hell of a thing.”
Strahan says he has just received a master’s degree from the University of New Hampshire. “I like hanging out at schools. I’m a scholarly guy” who “thinks” he got a bachelor’s degree from Boston University sometime in the 1980s. The title of his thesis: “The Inevitability of the Mass Extinction of Vertebrate Wildlife in the United States of America.”
“Animals are being wiped off the face of the earth deliberately and people have chosen not to stop it. They accept it.”
Strahan doesn’t accept that extinction, and that is why he is relentless in his efforts to stop lobster fishing which, he argues, seriously threatens right whales. But he also said the whales have no particular value except as a “poster child” for conservation.
“The whales are worthless. They actually cost our society,” but “if I can’t protect whales, how can I protect other animals?”
According to Strahan, the federal Endangered Species Act (and the Marine Mammal Protection Act) provides an answer. The ESA “requires you to shut down the fisheries” and if the laws are “ruthlessly enforced they can stop mass extinctions, at least in the United States.”
One problem, as Strahan sees it, is that nongovernmental conservation organizations such as the Conservation Law Foundation have “sold out. There’s no ethics in animal conservation. Wildlife gets chucked to the side.”
Referring to a lawsuit pending in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., in which the judge has ruled that NMFS violated the ESA in allowing lobster fishing to continue, Strahan said the Conservation Law Foundation was “trying to talk the judge out of enforcing the law” and “never asked him to stop the whale killing.”
Over the years, Strahan has developed a reputation as a gadfly, and worse, among fisheries regulators. At one time, a state fisheries regulatory agency obtained a restraining order against him alleging harassment, the New England Aquarium banned him and NMFS avoided his phone calls because of his vitriolic attacks on the agency. All that is at least 20 years in the past, but Strahan is still making people, especially lobstermen, angry. He really doesn’t care.
“I’m a really thoughtful fellow. Sentimentality is not my way.”
Strahan also dismisses the idea that banning vertical lines will destroy the lobster fishery. According to him, the “capitalist” way is for hidebound lobstermen to change the way they fish, though the changes he suggests are questionable.
“It is possible not to have to kill whales with a capitalistically oriented solution.”
While Strahan acknowledged that “ropeless fishing is a joke,” he charged that older fishermen are reluctant to adopt any new fishing techniques. He also suggested that lobstermen could just “drop traps in the water and retrieve them using SCUBA gear,” the way the spiny lobster fishery is practiced in Florida. “I don’t see why that wouldn’t work up here.”
As an alternative, Strahan says he is working on the development of “fishing line that won’t entangle whales.”
Despite offering some more or less practical solutions to the entanglement problem, Strahan sees a more fundamental issue with trying to save right whales along the heavily populated and industrialized coast of New England.
“It’s just too late. They’re coastal animals and this just ain’t the coastline for them anymore.”