Whales and Other Mammals

Posted Sept. 16, 2011, at 3:53 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 16, 2011, at 5:01 p.m.

Right whales, huge mammals that roam the ocean off the Maine coast, are an endangered species. Somewhat smaller mammals, the men and women who harvest Maine lobsters, are endangered, too. Some of the measures being taken to protect the whales are threatening the future of our lobstermen and the industry that spreads Maine’s fame throughout the world.

NOAA — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — blames ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear as the most common threat to right whales. Regulators first limited vessels’ speed and courses to avoid hitting them. Then came restrictions on the Maine’s 4,300 active lobster fishermen.

Two years ago, it was the floating rope, connecting lobster traps on the ocean floor, that had to go, except for close-in lobstering inside a line that runs three miles or less offshore. That meant thousand of thousands of dollars in replacement cost, and the now-required sinking rope often gets snagged or worn out on the rocky bottom, casting traps adrift.

The new target of the whale protectors is the thousands of “end ropes” or “pot warps,” the vertical lines that connect the traps with the 3 million lobster buoys that dot Maine’s coastal waters.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service conducted four public meetings in July to get Mainers’ thinking about whether and how to limit the number and type of these end ropes. Some people would like to prohibit them altogether. Some would like to leave them alone. Some would like to reduce their number by requiring more nets to be strung together on the bottom.

Another possibility is to require a weak link in the end line, so that it could break loose if struck by a whale. New restrictions probably will be heaviest where surveys show both likely whale presence and lobstering. The so-called critical areas where the right whales cruise are far offshore, off Cape Cod, and among the 3 million traps that dot coastal waters 60 miles south of Bar Harbor in the Gulf of Maine.

If end ropes were outlawed, lobstermen might have to dive for lobsters or use GPS to find their traps and drag grapnels to haul them up.

Guidelines for the public meetings include questions as to whether the sinking ground line requirements actually have reduced entanglements — a good question.

No one knows how the new rule will read. It will be drafted late this fall by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, which includes fishermen’s representatives as well as environmentalists, and the National Marine Fisheries Service. A final rule is expected to be adopted in 2014.

The drafters will concentrate on the entanglement of the whales in lobstering gear. They should also keep on mind the entanglement of our lobstermen in government regulations.

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