Battles over restrictions to fishing gear — intended to reduce harm to whales — have been going on for 20 years now. They hit close to home for Mount Desert Island, home to several busy lobstering harbors and also a hub of whale research and tourism.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources is often a model of how to balance competing interests and manage conflict within constituent groups. But the interplay with federal regulators, especially on the whale issue, more often seems to stir up deep cultural divisions: researchers, whale watchers and even yachtsmen on one side, and fishermen with anti-National Marine Fisheries Service bumper stickers on their trucks on the other.
Which is why it’s so good that fishermen and their advocates are at the table along with the regulators and scientists.
More lobstermen are fishing offshore than were five or ten years ago, that’s certainly true, so it’s understandable that scientists on their way to and from Mount Desert Rock look out at the gear and worry. And there have been dramatic whale entanglements in the Gulf of Maine, some quite nearby. But they haven’t been right whales.
The issue of endangered right whales leapt to the top of the news cycle in 2017. Twenty of the animals died in 2017 and 2018, more than four percent of the population. Of those deaths, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), five were from ship strikes, seven are known or suspected to be from entanglement and eight are undetermined. And, while marine mammals move independently of state and national boundaries, none of those deaths was near Maine. Nine were in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, three in Newfoundland, seven in Massachusetts and one in Virginia.
“Maine has rope in the water, so we are actively engaged in the plan, but the data do not appear to show that it is Maine lobster gear causing serious injury and mortality [in right whales],” Patrice McCarron, longtime head of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, said earlier this year. “Since 2016, most [deaths from entanglement] were confirmed in Canadian snow crab gear or the gear was unknown.”
Three cheers for the fishermen who continue to show up and negotiate in good faith, despite years of being blamed for bad news that’s not their fault.