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Federal fisheries regulators on Tuesday announced new rules for the northeast lobster industry. The rules, which are aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales, are more stringent and extensive than lobstermen and state officials had expected.
The timing of the new restrictions — which include a large area that will be closed to lobster harvesting during the height of the season — is especially problematic. To add to the frustration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moved ahead with the new rules without essential information about whale deaths that lobstermen, the governor and the state’s congressional delegation have requested for years.
In a draft biological opinion issued earlier this year, the fisheries agency essentially acknowledged the lack of specific data on what causes whale mortality, particularly information on collisions between ships and whales. Yet, it went ahead with the restrictive rules, which also impact New England’s crab fishery.
According to data that accompanied the announcement of the new rules, NOAA was certain of the cause of death in fewer than half of the 13 right whale deaths in the U.S. since 2017. In two of those cases, gear was found entangled on the dead whale. Entanglements were suspected in five other U.S. whale deaths. The agency did not specify where the gear was from or what type it was. Three deaths were attributed to vessel strikes.
The most recent known Maine entanglement occurred in 2004, but the whale survived, the Portland Press Herald reported.
“The leading category for the cause of death for [these unusual mortality events] is ‘human interaction,’ specifically from entanglements or vessel strikes,” NOAA said in an introduction to the data.
The NOAA plan does not include measures to reduce vessel strikes or to reduce right whale mortality in Canadian waters, which the agency does not have jurisdiction over, but which must be considered when trying to prevent whale injuries and death.
Instead, the new rules will put a 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine off-limits to traditional lobstering starting this year from October through January, which is the most lucrative season. The closed area is about 30 miles off the coast and extends from off Mount Desert Island to Casco Bay. Ropeless fishing, a new and largely untested way of setting and retrieving traps using a smartphone, will be allowed in this area.
NOAA estimates that about 120 boats will be affected by the closure. This includes the small number of boats that harvest lobster that far off shore and the boats that will likely be impacted when those who fish in the closed area move to other parts of the ocean where other lobstermen already set their traps.
For the majority of lobstermen, who fish closer to shore, gear modifications must be made to reduce the number of vertical lines in the ocean beginning in May 2022. This will require more traps between buoy lines and the use of weaker rope or clips on buoy lines so that a rope will break if a whale becomes entangled. Lobstermen worry that these changes will make it more dangerous to haul their traps. Complying with the rules could cost the fisheries up to $91 million over six years, according to the NOAA.
“We agree that we must protect the fragile right whale population, but we must do so without endangering human lives or livelihoods,” Maine’s congressional delegation and Gov. Janet Mills said in a joint statement on Tuesday. “It is unacceptable that Maine lobstermen and women continue to be the primary target of burdensome regulations despite the multiple effective mitigation measures they have taken and the data showing that ship strikes and Canadian snow crab gear pose substantially greater risks to right whales.”
To be clear, the decline in whale numbers in recent years is troubling. However, it is also problematic that more precise data on the causes of whale deaths remains lacking.
We, along with many fishermen, conservationists, our governor and congressional delegation, want the right whale population to grow and thrive. But without evidence that Maine lobster fishing gear is a significant threat to the whales, it is hard to accept potentially expensive, burdensome and dangerous changes in lobster fishing gear that may have little impact on the whales.
As we wrote in March, “it is premature to put so many stringent new requirements on Maine’s lobster fishermen.”
That remains true today.