Maine officials and members of the state’s lobster industry are blasting a new federal report on the endangered right whale, claiming it uses old science to unfairly target the fishery for restrictions.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources, the agency that regulates the $434 million lobster fishery, and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the trade group representing Maine’s 4,500 active commercial lobstermen, question the scientific merits of the report from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which was issued in advance of next week’s meeting of a federal right whale protection advisory team.

“They’re painting a big target on the back of the Maine lobster industry, but the picture isn’t based on the best available science,” DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Thursday. “If we use the wrong starting point, and that’s what this report is, the wrong starting point, what kind of regulations will we end up with? Ones that could end up hurting the lobster industry for no reason and won’t do much to help the right whales. That is unfair.”

EXAMINE ALL STRESSORS

Keliher documented his concern in a letter he sent Wednesday to the Science Center and the regional office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries division. He is asking the Science Center to correct and expand the report to include all stressors across the right whale’s range, which extends from Florida to Canada, before the Atlantic Right Whale Take Reduction Team meets in Providence next week.

Keliher and Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, raised concerns about the report’s characterizations of the growth of Maine’s offshore lobster fishery, which it concluded puts right whales at more risk, and how often right whales interact with Maine’s largely inshore fishery. NOAA itself hasn’t conducted an aerial survey of right whales in Maine waters in many years, Keliher notes – because they just aren’t here, he said.

Both rejected proposals from animal rights groups calling for trap reductions, seasonal closures and a rapid transition to ropeless fishing, saying that implementing them would cripple the lobster industry, which is an unrivaled source of jobs and revenue in coastal Maine, without any evidence to suggest they would help revive the struggling right whale population, which now numbers no more than 450.

‘WE ARE NOT KILLING WHALES’

One of Keliher’s biggest concerns is the report’s assumption that Maine lobstermen are using stronger seabed-to-surface ropes, or vertical lines, to haul the traps as a result of 2015 whale protection regulations put in place to reduce vertical lines that might entangle whales as they swim through the Gulf of Maine. But the report has no evidence to conclude that is actually happening, Keliher said.

This lack of data is well known to NOAA, Keliher said – in April, the federal agency awarded the DMR $700,000 to conduct a three-year survey of lobster gear used in the Gulf of Maine. Maine only began collecting data this summer, and is nowhere near done, but initial findings show Maine fishermen aren’t using thicker, or stronger, vertical lines, Keliher said.

The survey also is testing the breaking strength of the rope being used, and so far, most samples have broken far below what NOAA considers whale-safe strengths, which suggests that the majority of rope being used in the Maine lobster fishery since the 2015 regulations were put in place does not pose an entanglement threat to right whales, Keliher said. But these are preliminary findings that must be confirmed across the fishery before they can be trusted, he said.

NOAA has yet to consider how whale entanglement rates, especially fatalities, have changed since the 2015 rope regulations were enacted, Keliher said.

“Nobody has found a right whale entangled in Maine fishing gear since then, that’s for sure,” he said.

That is what McCarron said after reading the Science Center report and the proposals that whale defenders, including some that have sued the federal government to adopt lobster fishing restrictions, submitted to the whale team, on which McCarron serves, for consideration. Based on the latest entanglement data, you could take all the Maine lobster gear out of the water and it wouldn’t change a thing for right whales, McCarron said.

“We are not killing whales,” McCarron said. “The whales that are getting entangled aren’t getting entangled here. There’s no evidence of that.”

LOBSTERMEN ‘AN EASY TARGET’

Despite that, McCarron said Maine lobstermen want to protect the whales, and are willing to make some sacrifices if it can help avoid even one right whale death. But they don’t want to make that sacrifice unless there is good science to suggest that sacrifice would make a difference to the whales, and nothing in the Science Center’s latest report suggests that NOAA has figured out a solution that will actually work, she said.

The report minimizes the impact of ship strikes, which killed as many whales as entanglements in 2017, as well as the environmental factors that are causing the whales to change their feeding and migration patterns, McCarron said. And she noted the recent right whale emergency began last year with the rash of whale deaths in Canada, which has only recently begun to implement some of the protection measures already in place in the U.S.

“Nobody denies that right whales aren’t headed in the right direction, and we want to help, but the best science we have available says that we aren’t the problem,” McCarron said. “But we’re the big guy, an easy target, the first place that people want to go to make changes. But if your whale plan is just about us, it’s not a real plan, and it’s not a good plan.”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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