By Jim Dow
No one ever said that life was fair. But the 10-year plan put forth in August by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales is so obviously unfair and, to make matters worse, based on bad science, that the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) has sued the federal government because of it. If this flawed plan remains in place the Maine lobster fishery could be erased within a decade, decimating the precious coastal communities where we live and work.
The plan’s goal is to reduce risk to the whales from lobster gear by 60 percent right now, then by another 60 percent in 2025, and a final 87 percent in 2030, resulting in a 98 percent reduction in the already minimal risk that lobstermen pose to the whales. That does not leave much, if any, room for a viable lobster fishery in this state.
The MLA contends that NMFS got it wrong. The best available science does not support the agency’s plan and instead, the government needs to come up with a plan that will protect the whales without sinking the lobster industry.
We care about protecting the whales. Since 1997, Maine lobstermen have taken many actions to protect right whales from entanglement. We’ve put in place measures such as removing thousands of miles of rope from the water, keeping rope off the surface where a whale might feed, putting weak links in our rope so that a whale can break free, and marking our lines so we know if Maine lobster gear is responsible for an entanglement. These measures have worked. The right whale population had doubled in two decades.
More importantly, no right whale has been known to become entangled in Maine lobster gear since 2004. No right whale has ever died from Maine lobster gear.
Meanwhile, right whales now spend more time in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, an important fishing and shipping area that did not have right whale protection measures in place prior to 2018. Though Canada is working to improve its conservation program, sadly, numerous right whales have died due to encounters with fishing gear or succumbed to strikes by large vessels. NMFS’s 10-year plan holds Maine lobstermen accountable for right whale deaths occurring in Canada; that is not fair.
NMFS has persistently ignored science and evidence submitted by the MLA and other experts that would have enabled the agency to correct its mistakes. It has disregarded new scientific information about right whale migration patterns indicating their feeding ground is moving farther away from where we fish and that the Maine lobster fishery poses very little risk to these whales. That too is not fair.
A federal plan based on poor data that disregards the reality of what is happening at sea has the very real potential of wiping out Maine’s lobster fishery, a fishery composed of more than 4,800 individually owned and operated fishing vessels. A fishery that brings in nearly half a billion dollars to Maine’s economy each year. A fishery that employs tens of thousands of Maine residents in associated businesses and services. A fishery that is the economic backbone of our communities here in Downeast Maine.
Think of it. What might become of communities like Stonington or Swan’s Island without a strong lobster industry? If lobstermen cannot fish, the money that they spend in Ellsworth and other towns will evaporate. Businesses small and large, from truck sales, hardware stores, marine supplies, banks and coffee shops, will see fewer customers. The ramifications of this action by NMFS will be felt throughout the coast and those effects will be bitter.
That’s why the MLA has begun an ambitious fundraising campaign to stop NMFS in its tracks. Save Maine Lobstermen aims to raise $10 million over the next three years to help fight back against deep-pocketed organizations that don’t care about the future of our industry. The MLA must pursue its lawsuit against NMFS to seek accountability from the government on the scientific basis of its 10-year whale plan. It must continue to go head-to-head with federal agencies and the environmental groups to save our livelihoods and our communities. None of this can be accomplished without money and that is why we need your help. Join us in this fight by making a contribution at www.savemainelobstermen.org or contacting the Maine Lobstermen’s Association at 967-4555. We’re fighting for our future, but we can’t do it alone.
Jim Dow is a lobsterman from Bass Harbor and treasurer of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.