A federal proposal to cut fishing lines off the Maine coast was dead in the water to lobstermen, who said it would put either their lives or ability to make a living at risk.
We agreed, arguing that there was no evidence that the plan, aimed at saving the endangered North Atlantic right whale, would hit its target, though it would certainly cause distress in Maine’s $485 million lobster industry.
The lobster industry felt the same way. Now the state Department of Marine Resources has put forward its own proposal.
Aimed at addressing the risk to right whales “where it actually occurs,” according to Commissioner Patrick Keliher, the plan, the state says, meets goals for reducing mortality risk among whales while lessening the burden on the lobster industry. It’s a good counterproposal to the federal government’s plan, and it deserves serious consideration.
The federal proposal, released this summer, called on Maine to reduce the number of surface-to-seabed buoy lines by 50 percent in both state waters, which run out to three miles from shore, and federal waters, which extend from there.
The goal was to reduce whale injury and death by 60 percent. Between 2017 and 2018, 20 right whales died - a staggering 4 percent of the population - mostly from entanglements with fishing lines. Experts say even one death a year could doom the population, which has fallen to about 400.
However, lobstermen said the plan would cause them to either cut the number of traps, which would hurt operations that rely on volume, or put more traps on each line, adding weight that would put smaller crews at risk.
And while fishing entanglements are to blame for about 85 percent of right whale deaths, none of those deaths has been conclusively tied to the Maine lobster industry. The whales are a very rare sight, fishermen say, particularly in the waters closer to shore.
A number of other factors have been floated for the deaths, too, including changes in water temperature that have caused the whales to change feeding grounds, as well as more lax conservation laws in Canadian waters.
With all this in mind, lobstermen were right to be wary of the proposal. And since industry buy-in is necessary to make any plan work, the state was right to put forward its own proposal.
The state’s plan would eliminate 25 percent of buoy lines set by state lobstermen in federal waters by requiring they add more traps to each line, “trawling up” more and more as they get farther from shore, where a right whale is more likely to pass through.
The plan would affect about 1,800 of Maine’s 5,000 or so licensed lobstermen. Keliher said the state could work with captains of smaller vessels for whom adding too many traps would be dangerous.
Keliher said the department believes the plan meets the federal goal for risk reduction. That remains to be seen; environmental and conservation groups say it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
But it at least takes into account the impact on the lobster industry and acknowledges that drastic changes in some waters will do more harm than good.
That’s a step in the right direction, and goes a long way toward getting the lobster industry back on board with the effort to save the right whale.