BAR HARBOR — The lobsters and whales that live in the Gulf of Maine both carry a lot of interest for residents and visitors here. Catching lobster was a $180 million industry in Hancock County last year, while whale watching, science and conservation are a focus for several local institutions.
When an endangered large whale (right, humpback and fin) is injured or dies after an encounter with fishing gear in the ocean, it can set these two groups against each other.
Lobstermen used to be directly involved in working to disentangle whales from ropes and nets, and some still are in Canada, but U.S. rules now require trained specialists to respond.
“Most disentanglements were not being done correctly,” Erin Summers of the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) told a group of whale watch naturalists at a conference here last month. “Cutting rope without some training in whale behavior can make the situation worse.”
Summers leads whale protection efforts for the DMR and is one of Maine’s representatives on the federal Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT), which designs rules intended to protect whales from fishing gear.
The existing federal rules for lobster gear include weak link requirements, limits on where and when they can use floating rope and gear marking. Offshore, they also have to have longer trawls – more traps on a line attached to a single buoy at the surface.
Some of the rules are aimed at being able to identify the type of fishing gear and region where it was set. Buoys have long been marked with the individual fisherman’s license number, but in case of an entanglement, enforcement action is only pursued if rule violations are found.
Summers said the DMR continues to collect data they hope will be helpful in TRT negotiations about future rules. Some lobster boats will begin logging data about the load on a rope as it is being hauled in by the hydraulic pot hauler.
“We need to know that kind of information before we can say whether the fishery will be able to switch” to a different kind of rope that might be easier for whales to break free from, she said.
They’re also surveying the number of buoys per square kilometer and mapping that data with where whales are known to live and travel.
“No fishery has yet built a co-occurrence model like that,” Summers said.
The Maine delegation to the TRT has worked to adjust rules to minimize risk and cost for the state’s lobster harvesters.
“This last time around with the vertical lines, we hit a home run,” DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in 2014. “We hit a grand slam.” Because the industry and the state work so well together, he explained, Maine fishermen face rules that are less restrictive than in many other areas.
Boaters who encounter an entangled whale are encouraged to report the situation and hold station near the animal to assist a disentanglement team in finding it, but many fishermen are leery of even doing that. It’s illegal to touch an endangered species or a protected marine mammal, and fishermen also are concerned they’ll be personally blamed for an incident with someone else’s gear.
A series of lawsuits in the 1990s filed by Boston activist Richard “Max” Strahan about whales led to the closures of many Massachusetts fishing grounds and contributed to growing mistrust between fishermen and whale experts.
“That really worked against us,” said Zack Klyver of the Bar Harbor Whale Watch.
Summers said the TRT works with Canadian fishery representatives, and the lobster fishery there has some voluntary measures that are “in line with what our rules are.”
But Stonington fisherman Genevieve McDonald said the cultural difference is still significant.
“Canadian lobstermen do not have to fear reprisal in reporting entanglements and are trained to lead disentanglement efforts,” she said in a show with Klyver on radio station WERU in 2015. “In Canada, lobstermen are being celebrated as part of the solution; while here, we continue to be vilified as part of the problem. It’s frustrating, as we’re the same fishery.”
Summers and Marine Patrol Sgt. Colin MacDonald are among the state officials trained to respond to entanglements. Several other Marine Patrol officers have taken training at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, Mass.
CCS is an independent research and conservation organization authorized by the federal government to respond to whale entanglements. All Marine Patrol officers receive a level I training, Summers said, and 12 DMR employees, including her and McDonald, are trained to level III.
“Marine Patrol officers are energized and spreading the word” about proper procedures in an entanglement, MacDonald said.