A plan to drastically reduce the amount of fishing line in the waters off Maine has lobstermen up and down the coast worried about their future. It is pitting small inshore operators against those who haul in deeper waters.

And there’s little evidence it will work.

The plan is part of an effort by federal regulators to save the North Atlantic right whale, of which only an estimated 411 remain. Fishing line entanglements are the biggest threat to the whales, and regulators have given the Maine Department of Marine Resources until September to find a way to cut buoy lines by 50 percent to reduce the risk of such entanglements.

The department is now holding a series of meetings with lobstermen to figure out which direction to go – with none of them particularly attractive to members of the $485 million lobster fishery.

To get to 50 percent fewer lines, the industry will have to either cut the overall number of traps in half, which would hurt lobstermen who work in deeper waters with a larger crew and depend on volume to make a living, or reduce the number of buoy lines and put more traps on each line, where the extra weight could put in danger the smaller crews that work close to shore.

The industry could agree on either one of those options, or some combination of the two, along with perhaps shutting down the inshore fishery for a few months. There’s also a chance that different fishing zones could adopt different rules, as long as the overall goal is achieved.

Whatever the final details of the plan, once in place it will certainly hurt lobstermen. Requiring more traps per line will force some small-scale lobstermen to pack it in, unwilling or unable to handle the extra weight. Reducing the overall number of traps will put pressure on large operators, whose margins are slim.

What’s more, any reductions or shutdowns will put pressure on an industry that has struggled to deal with the demand for new licenses. It will inject more uncertainty into an industry whose future is intertwined with the people of the coast.

And it may not save any whales. Between 2017 and 2018, 20 North Atlantic right whales died – a staggering 4 percent of the population. The three deaths in 2018 were all from rope entanglements, as were 85 percent of the deaths 2010-16.

The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that fishing rope kills or seriously injures five to nine right whales a year, and says that even a single death a year is too many if the population of the endangered species is to be sustained.

But none of the deaths has been tied conclusively to Maine lobster gear. There are many factors in play, including changes in water temperature that could be stressing the whales, or moving their food sources and sending them more often into Canadian waters, where protections are more lax than the United States.

If the changes were a good bet to save the right whale, disrupting the lobster industry would be worth it. But right now, as the livelihood of many Maine fishermen is being thrown into question, we don’t know that it is. Any further action should be stowed away until more is understood about who exactly is killing right whales.

 


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