State of Maine: Real consequences of whale rules

By Jill Goldthwait

Here we go again. Federal fisheries regulators have been tightening the screws on Maine lobstermen for decades. Now they are planning to take another turn in an effort to reduce “the risk of death or injury” to right whales by 60 percent.

In the late 1990s, a trap limit was introduced in the fishery for the first time. It was controversial on the coast, though many lobstermen were willing to go along. The initial limit was set at 1,200, which even the fishermen said was too high, but anything lower was likely to fail in a skeptical Legislature.

Shortly after the passage of that first limit, the feds said it had to come down to an 800-trap limit. At the risk of facing stricter measures from Washington, the state complied.

At about the same time the zone system was implemented, which gave lobstermen more say in the management of the industry. A few of the seven zones chose an even lower trap limit.

Despite this effort at autonomy, the feds have considerable leverage. The bottom line is always: “Do it yourself or we’ll do it for you.”

Some fishermen would like the feds to butt out entirely, but most realize the need for management and many have worked long and hard, serving on boards and committees, attending public hearings, and participating in the zone council process.

In addition to the time they commit to working through management issues, this service often puts fishermen at odds with their communities. They are accused of treason if they participate in negotiations. It’s just another burden they bear.

Conservationists accuse fishermen of wanting to take every last fish, but that is far from true. Fishermen are not stupid. They understand that their economic future is linked to a healthy species, and they are willing to forego some of today’s bounty for the sake of future fishing.

What is hard to swallow for fishermen is when lobbyists, advocates or regulators who have never spent a day on the water — not on a commercial fishing boat, anyway — come up with a menu of regulations that do not pass the straight face test for anyone who comes home from work salty.

Who can forget Harvey Crowley, the Corea lobsterman who bagged an entire federal regulatory panel at a whale hearing in Ellsworth two decades back? Harvey meandered to the front of The Grand auditorium lugging a large trash bag. As he spoke, he removed knotted lengths of rope from the bag, raised up on tiptoes and lined the knots up on the table in front of the panel on the stage.

“Now,” said Harvey, “if you’ll just hold up that ‘sister’ knot…” Not one of the federal “experts” could identify the knot they were proposing to regulate. Harvey had made his point, and the assembled crowd howled its support.

The death of a whale is a terrible thing. To struggle to eat, breed and migrate entangled in rope, and maybe to die that way, is nothing anyone considers acceptable. The solutions are not simple. The federal effort now is to remove vertical lines from the water, and to make those lines that are out there weak enough to break if a whale is snarled in them.

Putting more traps on a trawl, a string of traps connected by a groundline, reduces vertical lines but is heavy to haul in — dangerously so. It might also mean more lost traps if the rope parts and the traps attached sink back to the bottom.

There are many other questions about proposed regulations. What is the worst threat to whales? In some years it has been shipping, and more stringent regulations have been placed on that industry, too, but do they bear a regulatory burden equal to that of the fishermen?

How often do whales transit the areas where most Maine fishermen fish, anyway? Not often, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) itself, whose Large Whale Take Reduction Team is advancing the new regulations. In the past two years there were twelve whale deaths in Canada, eight in the United States and none — zero — in Maine lobster fishing grounds.

There are three lawsuits from conservation groups aimed at getting NOAA to speed the process. Some lobstermen are urging the state to bring its own lawsuit to slow the process down.

The Maine delegation has challenged the absence of peer review, an essential step in developing analytical models to support NOAA recommendations. U.S. Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree have introduced an amendment that would block the new rules until further research is done.

Maine lobstermen are conscientious stewards of the resource and supportive of regulations that make sense. What they can’t abide are proposals that threaten their livelihoods without benefiting the stock. They should be the drivers of the process, not the victims.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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