As executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, I applaud Gov. Mills’ July 11 Message to Maine’s Lobster Industry acknowledging the federal government’s “disturbing lack of evidence connecting the Maine lobster industry to recent right whale deaths.”

Maine’s lobstermen understand that right whales are at risk and we are committed to being part of the solution. But as Gov. Mills rightly points out, the data show that Maine is just a small part of a complex problem.

Lobstermen recognize that the right whale population will not improve without everyone doing their part to aid in the species’ recovery. However, assigning 60 percent of the risk to our fishery, which has only one confirmed right whale entanglement dating back to 2002 and zero confirmed serious injuries or mortalities, will not save the species. Maine’s solution must reflect the actual risk Maine lobstermen pose to right whales. We should not be forced to implement changes to achieve an arbitrary goal if those measures won’t realistically help the right whale population recover.

The MLA fully supports Gov. Mills’ request that the Department of Marine Resources “evaluate a risk reduction target for Maine that is commensurate to any actual risk posed by the Maine lobster industry.”

What is often lost in this debate is that the population of North Atlantic right whales was only 295 in 1997, when federal regulators first required U.S. fishermen to implement conservation measures. In the ensuing years, the right whale population increased to more than 450 whales. During this time, Maine lobstermen adopted many measures, including removing floating line from the surface of the water, adding weak links to help whales break free from buoy lines, replacing 27,000 miles of floating line between traps with whale-safe rope that sinks, removing 30 percent of Maine’s buoy lines and marking Maine’s gear to identify the origin of gear if a whale becomes entangled.

The National Marine Fisheries Service concluded in its 2008 Final Rule that “NMFS believes large whales rarely occur inside many of Maine’s bays, harbors, or inlets.” These waters were exempted from the federal whale plan, but as a precautionary measure, the state of Maine still requires Maine lobstermen to implement whale-safe measures there. Published data show that since 2010, changes in ocean conditions have led to major shifts in right whale distribution, making them even more rare in the waters off the Maine coast.

So what is happening to right whales? Accumulating evidence points to climate as a crucial factor in determining right whale distribution, food availability, overall health, birth rates, as well as injury and mortality rates. Importantly, the changing climate has affected the distribution of the copepod, Calanus finmarchicus, the right whale’s preferred food. Large aggregations of right whales have followed shifting copepod aggregations to Massachusetts’ Cape Cod Bay during winter and Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence during summer where they spend significant time feeding.

Massachusetts lobstermen do not fish those waters where more than half the population of right whales are feeding during the winter. The U.S. has also implemented a successful plan to shift shipping traffic and slow ships in U.S. waters when right whales are present.

The current crisis for right whales was set into motion when large numbers of them began feeding in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence where no effective whale protection measures were in place. Since 2016, 15 right whale deaths and three serious injuries have been attributed to Canadian vessel strikes and gear entanglements. There are simply no mitigation measures that Maine lobstermen can implement that would have prevented these tragedies.

Under the leadership of the Mills administration, Maine will not sit idly by during this crisis. In addition to identifying measures to reduce the risk Maine’s lobster fishery poses to right whales, the administration has pledged to expand and uniquely mark Maine lobster gear to increase confidence that any unidentified rope removed from whales did not originate from Maine, and to require all Maine lobstermen to report where and when they fish in order to track potential overlap with whales.

Thank you, Gov. Mills, for standing with Maine lobstermen in seeking whale protection measures that reflect the risk posed by our fishery, and demanding sound science to provide assurance that the sacrifices our lobstermen make will actually aid in the recovery of the right whale population.