“I don’t like this,” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for a government proposal — particularly when those words are coming from the head of the state agency making the proposal.
But that’s what Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher told lobstermen at a meeting in Ellsworth Monday night, where he outlined the department’s new plan to reduce the risk posed to endangered North Atlantic right whales from Maine lobster gear.
While Keliher’s presentation may have lacked enthusiasm, it included a healthy dose of pragmatic reality.
A couple of fishermen did signal a willingness to give the state proposal a try, but frustration seemed the prevailing response Monday night. Keliher clearly shared some of that frustration, but correctly pointed out that the industry and the state find themselves facing pressure from the federal government and in the courts, where conservation groups are suing for stronger action to protect the endangered right whale.
The state plan is a counter offer of sorts to a federal proposal that would require a 50 percent reduction in the vertical lines in the water that connect to lobster traps. Keliher said the state plan would amount to a 25 percent line reduction.
Several of the lobstermen who spoke Monday night raised concerns about the state’s proposal — including its combination of calling for more traps on some lines while also calling for weak points in rope. The timing of new Maine-specific gear marking requirements was also contentious.
“You’ve got to just buck up and say, ‘We can’t do this, it’s not going to work,’ Bar Harbor lobsterman Jim Hanscom told Keliher.
“Listen, I get it Jim, but if you say, ‘It just can’t work, and we’ve got to buck up and we’re not going to do it,’ they’re going to force something else on you to take even more gear out of the water,” Keliher responded. And he’s right.
There is no doubt that the North Atlantic right whale is experiencing a troubling decline. But the existing data on whale mortality, however, is less definitive in terms of understanding where Maine’s lobster fishery might fit in.
Some Maine lobstermen, including speakers at a rally in Stonington this summer, contend that right whales are not in Maine’s coastal waters.
According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only two of the nearly 50 total instances of right whale mortality or significant injury involving fishing gear from 2010 to 2018 involved gear from the U.S. Neither were attributed to the Maine lobster fishery, according to DMR.
However, roughly 80 percent of those whale mortalities involved unidentified gear. That means the Maine lobster industry has not been proven guilty, but the existing data is far from an exoneration.
If Maine lobster gear truly isn’t responsible for whale entanglements, more Maine-specific data enabled by the proposed gear marking requirements can only help make that point in response to the federal government and conservation advocates calling for stricter rules.
Lobsterman Julie Eaton of Stonington, an organizer of the rally there this summer, wondered at what point the state and industry “say, ‘enough,’” but signaled her support for the Maine-specific gear marking in order to provide clarity on the whale issue.
“So let’s clear our name, and move on. Once we can clear our name regarding this, then we’re going to be better off for it,” Eaton said Monday. That message should reverberate through the industry.
To be clear, any notion that right whales aren’t off the Maine coast at all defies basic geography and what we do know about the whales. As Keliher said Monday night, it’s “obvious that they don’t levitate” between Canada and Massachusetts, where whale mortalities have been observed in recent years.
The questions, then, are how far off the Maine coast are these whales when they travel through, and to what extent, if at all, are they near or encountering Maine lobster gear. Maine-specific markings and better data gathering can help provide the answers.
Several fishermen Monday night said an originally planned June 2020 timeline for the new gear marking would be problematic and unreasonable. The DMR Advisory Council appears to have taken those concerns into account when voting Wednesday to approve the proposed gear marking rule that, according to a DMR spokesperson, now has a September 2020 implementation date.
At this point, if the industry truly believes it poses little risk to right whales, it should be welcoming a chance to help prove that through stronger gear marking requirements and better data collection.