MACHIAS — Lobsterman Charlie Smith has already paid a steep price to protect the right whale, an endangered species that he has never even seen in a long career spent at sea, much less found entangled in his fishing rope.

When the Jonesport lobsterman raises his left hand, it is clear that he has lost the ends of several fingers, ripped off several years ago by a tangle of weighted rope that fishermen were ordered to use in 2009 to protect right whales.

“That’s what happened here to these fingers,” said Smith, holding up his hand, at a National Marine Fisheries Service hearing Monday night. “The rope got all chafed up. There’s all kind of stories from sinking ground line. What comes next?”

About 70 fishermen came to the first fisheries service public meeting in Maine on the latest round of lobster rule changes being considered to protect the endangered whales. They expressed safety fears and their mounting frustration.

The state’s $485 million-a-year lobster industry is facing a federal mandate to lower the number of buoy lines in the Gulf of Maine by 50 percent to protect right whales. Fishermen worry the rules will make their jobs less profitable and more dangerous.

Maine has until September to submit its lobster industry right whale plan to the fisheries service.

Scientists believe about 400 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when its population bottomed out at 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but low calving rates, ship strikes and fishing line entanglements, especially in Canada, have sent its numbers tumbling again.

Federal regulators have concluded the species won’t recover if even one right whale dies a year – from fishing gear entanglement or vessel strike – in the United States or Canada.

Lobsterman after lobsterman took to the podium asking regulators to provide them with evidence that shows the ropes they use to link traps to surface buoys are killing right whales, or that right whales are even in the Gulf of Maine anymore.

Regulators say most of the right whales found dead every year do not have any fishing gear on them.

Scientists from the New England Aquarium have studied over 1,400 right whale entanglements over a 35 year period, but only 105 had rope left attached, and only a handful of those had marked rope that could be traced back to a fishery.

But Zack Klyvar, a guide with the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., said that his company has documented 120 right whales in the Gulf of Maine over about 90 trips out, although most of those were in offshore waters.

And he noted that he has personally seen about a dozen whales entangled in Maine lobster gear, anchored to the bottom by the rope and a string of traps. They weren’t right whales, however, but other species.

Joel Strout, a Harrington lobstermen, told regulators that the crowd attending Monday’s hearing was small because Maine lobstermen just assume federal regulators are going to pin the right whale problem on them, as they have in the past.

“The last 15 to 20 years, you’ve done whatever you want,” Strout said. “You continue to push this stuff down our throat. We do not have a problem. There is nothing that shows we’ve ever killed a whale.”

He wrapped it up like this: “Why are we protecting something we can’t even see?”

Lobsterman John Drouin out of Cutler asked regulators if Maine fishermen would get blamed for the right whale found dead off the coast of France. He said Mainers should help, but shouldn’t be expected to do it all, or be blamed for Canadian actions.

“We cannot protect these whales wherever they may swim,” Drouin told regulators. “Fishermen are stewards of the ocean and we do not want to see these creatures die from fishing gear, but the problem is not Maine fishing gear.”

Some proposed whale protections will put Maine fishermen in danger, he said.

Regulators will hold other public hearings on right whale protections in Ellsworth on Tuesday, Waldoboro on Wednesday and South Portland on Thursday. They then go to Massachusetts. About two dozen attended a Rhode Island hearing last week.

After the meeting, Smith said he was doubtful that regulators would take his fears into account. After all, he’d told this story before, making the rounds with other concerned lobstermen in Washington, D.C., about five years ago.

He doubted his claim that the new rules would cost the average fishermen about $10,000 a year had sunk in, either, he said. Fishermen say they’ll have to buy new rope, hire more help to haul fewer traps more often, or buy bigger boats for safety.

“It didn’t seem to stop them from coming back with an even bigger ask, now did it?” Smith asked. “They think we forget that we’ve been through this whole show before, but we remember.”


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