Editorial: Out of proportion

Competing video advertisements were released last week in the public relations battle over the role of the Maine lobster industry in the plight of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

One was from Oceana, featuring actor Sam Waterston, pleading with viewers to “act now before it’s too late” to save the whales. The other is from the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, citing the industry’s two decades of active participation in whale protection plans and current research on rope strength and load testing.

What action is the conservation group urging? There’s a form letter that visitors to the Oceana website can have sent to their members of Congress. It has seven recommendations; four of them have to do with fisheries management actions.

Only one of the seven addresses ship strikes, even though U.S. and Canadian vessel strikes was the top cause of right whale deaths from known human causes between 2010 and 2018, accounting for 48 percent of those deaths, according to recent analysis of National Marine Fisheries Service data by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Cause of death number two for right whales is the Canadian snow crab fishery, accounting for 31 percent. In third place is gillnet and netting gear at 13 percent.

  1. S. trap and pot gear accounted for 4 percent of right whale deaths from known human causes, with unknown trap and pot gear another 4 percent. Even if all of the unknown fixed-gear entanglements were on the U.S. side, which is unlikely because the rope being removed from whales is thicker than that used by Maine lobstermen, it would be 8 percent of the problem. So why is 8 percent of the problem the focus of the campaign?

“We can’t know who is to blame,” Oceana’s Whitney Webber told the Portland Press Herald last week, referring to the whale deaths from entanglement in which officials couldn’t determine which fishery the gear is from.

“They’ve made sure of that,” she said, citing the 71 percent of Maine’s state waters that are exempt from gear-marking requirements.

It’s true that Maine’s lobster industry representatives have successfully lobbied for carve-outs from some rules, like the allowance for shorter trawls in the rocky bottom near Mount Desert Rock. But it’s not the case that Maine lobstermen have attempted to shirk responsibility for entanglements.

In fact, in the Aug. 30 letter withdrawing support for the TRT plan, the Maine Lobsterman’s Association proposed “to expand and uniquely mark Maine lobster fishing gear for Maine’s lobster fishery and to introduce gear marking in Maine’s exempted waters.”

It’s time to stop slinging mud and get back to work on how to actually protect the whales.

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