Maine’s working waterfronts are iconic; our lobster is internationally renowned. But getting to this point has been no small feat. Behind the scenes, lobstering has never been an easy way to make a living. It’s grueling work that requires long days, backbreaking work in extreme temperatures and a dependence on our natural resources, which carries great risk and uncertainty. Despite these challenges, Maine lobstermen have buckled down and built a thriving industry that supports communities all along the coast and plays an integral role in our economy. This could all change overnight. Maine’s lobstering industry is now facing its greatest threat yet: the dramatic decline in right whales. 

Don’t get us wrong – the decimation of the right whale population is alarming, and it deserves a thoughtful strategy. Maine lobstermen have a long history of responding and adapting to threats to our environment and marine life. To protect right whales from human-caused mortality such as ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear entanglements, however, what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed would bring dramatic and expensive changes to the lobster industry.   

Here’s the problem: Lobstermen and conservationists alike cite a lack of evidence that Maine gear has been responsible for right whale entanglements. Consequently, Maine’s unique coastline makes a “one size fits all” risk-reduction plan impractical and of limited use. In addition, with the Gulf of Maine’s rapidly rising temperatures, scientists tell us that right whales seem to be heading into new territory to look for food. Finally, it isn’t clear what would happen if, after the new rules are in place, there was no Maine gear showing up on right whales. 

These types of proposals are not new, and Maine lobstermen have already gone to great lengths to protect the right whale for over 20 years. At their own expense, they replaced floating groundlines with a rope that sinks. They’ve added more traps to each line, resulting in a reduction of 30,000 miles of rope in the water. These changes were both expensive and dangerous to Maine lobstermen, but despite the lack of right whales in Maine waters, they complied.  

It’s clear there are concerns, both for the lobster industry and for right whales. Lobstermen are worried. A 50% reduction in vertical lines means that more gear is attached to one line, which brings even more risk, especially for smaller boats. Fewer traps for those who can’t afford a larger boat to handle longer trawl lines might mean a potentially fatal blow to their bottom line. Let us be clear, no one wants to harm this endangered species. But solutions designed for areas where right whales swim don’t belong here. There just isn’t evidence to suggest that Maine gear has been responsible for right whale entanglements. What lobstermen want and deserve is a solution that reflects the real science and the real problem, not what appears to be a short-term fix that could destroy an industry.   

The new rules pose a threat to an industry that has put this state on the map and a threat to the families that depend on this industry for their livelihood. As state lawmakers serving on the Marine Resources Committee, and representing working waterfronts, we urge the federal government to reexamine the situation and identify a better solution. 

In the meantime, the Maine Department of Marine Resources will be working over the summer to develop a better plan that supports both our lobstermen and efforts to protect the right whale. Commissioner Patrick Keliher will meet with each lobster Zone Council again in August. If you’re a lobster fisherman, we encourage you to attend your zone council meeting and offer your feedback and your experience. Also, please get in touch with us if you have questions or concerns. Your voice is critical in this process. This plan will be submitted to NOAA in October.  

The strength, longevity and diversity of Maine’s lobster industry is important to all of us. Our policies and rules ought to both respect and promote that diversity, the safety of our lobstermen and our local economies. With a thoughtful approach, we can save the lobster industry and protect right whales. 

Democrat Reps. Allison Hepler and Jay McCreight represent Woolwich and Harpswell, respectively, in the Maine House. Sen. Eloise Vitelli, D- Sagadahoc, serves as the assistant majority leader in the Maine Senate. 

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