Credit: George Danby / BDN

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Kristan Porter is a commercial lobsterman from Cutler and is president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

As a lifelong Maine lobsterman, I understand the inherent dangers of my job. I keep watch on the forecast knowing that sudden weather changes can make the difference between a successful day at work and putting my crew’s life at risk. These days, however, the hazard posed by Mother Nature does not compare with the perfect storm of regulations coming out of Washington that threaten my job, our way of life and may eventually sink a fishery that has supported communities and generations of families here in Maine.

In May, National Marine Fisheries Service released a nearly 1,000-page document outlining a 10-year plan that mandates a seemingly unreachable goal to reduce risk from our industry to the endangered North Atlantic right whale by 98 percent. This not only affects me, but nearly 10,000 other men and women who make their living hauling traps.

The fisheries service rolled out the first phase of this plan in August, requiring new gear modifications to add more traps to each buoy line while simultaneously making each line weaker. These measures reduce risk by removing a lot of rope from the ocean and help any entangled right whale to break free from the lines that remain, but they will most certainly make a lobsterman’s already dangerous job even more so.

Recently, a federal judge in Bangor temporarily delayed a seasonal closure of more than 950 square miles of prime lobstering ground off Maine. While we are relieved with this decision, the proposed closure reflects just one in a long line of decisions in the government’s plan that is supposed to protect right whales. The problem is this misguided plan takes aim at the wrong target and may destroy our industry while doing little to help protect the whale.

Those of us who make our living on the water need the Maine lobster industry to survive and thrive. Maine lobstermen committed, a long time ago, to practicing sustainability measures that not only protect the health of our lobster stock but the entire ocean ecosystem. That is why lobstermen are on the front lines of whale protection.

In Maine, we are proud of our high compliance in practicing all the whale protection measures asked of us. Maine lobstermen have made many changes in how we rig and fish our gear, including removing all floating line from the surface, incorporating “weak links” into buoy lines, deploying sinking groundlines and significantly reducing the number of vertical lines in the water column by adding more traps per end-line.

I believe we have been honest brokers and stepped up every time the federal government has required new whale conservation measures because we care deeply about the livelihood of our fishery and the whales. This time, as we again find ourselves in the sights of the federal government, we foresee a lose-lose for our fishery and the whales. So, we’re fighting back.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association recently filed a federal lawsuit challenging the government’s flawed whale plan. We must hold the government accountable for failing to use the best scientific information and ignoring the positive impact of conservation measures adopted over the last two decades by Maine lobstermen. Our conservation measures are working.

There has never been a known right whale death or serious injury associated with Maine lobster gear. Never. There has not been a single known right whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear in almost two decades. Not one. Scientists have documented that right whales are rare off the coast of Maine and continue to shift even further away from where we fish.

Don’t get me wrong. I care about protecting right whales and I support making the ocean safer for them by taking responsibility for the risk our fishery poses. But the true threat to right whales doesn’t come from lobstermen. In a letter to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, Maine’s governor and congressional delegation note that while both fishing gear and ship strikes pose a threat to whales, “NOAA has not added new rules to reduce U.S. ship strikes since 2008.” Between 2017 and 2019, ship strikes accounted for seven of 18 dead whales found in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. Both the U.S. and Canada need to step up effort to reduce this threat to whales.

Maine lobstermen are willing to do what it takes to solve the problem — but we can’t do it alone, nor can we continue to shoulder a burden that is slowly drowning us.