PORT CLYDE — The word “extinction” has been thrown around a lot lately by environmental groups that believe that Northern right whales are on the verge of just that. Though right whales number more than 8,000 in the Southern Hemisphere, only 400 to 500 are believed to be in the Northern Hemisphere.

Fishermen, whose only master is Mother Nature, and who have been admired over the years for their tenacity and independence, now have been cast as the villain in the whale story. Large, well-funded, out-of-state environmental groups would have you believe that these whales are going extinct and that Maine fishing gear entanglement is a major reason why.

These groups have proposed things like ropeless fishing and refuse to believe that ideas like this are not practical in Maine. Can you imagine how a fisherman could set his 20- to 30-trap trawl into water 300 to 400 feet deep, not knowing where any of his competitors’ trawls might have been set days before? As if hauling long trawls in deep water isn’t dangerous enough, hauling up one’s trawl with another one or two draped over it can be life-threatening.

In response to the threat of lawsuits, the National Marine Fisheries Service has pressured Maine into a proposal to reduce, by 50 percent, the number of vertical lines Maine fishermen use to haul their lobster traps. The only problem with this is that there is not one instance where a right whale entanglement and/or death was proven to have been caused by a Maine vertical fishing line.

Most Maine lobster gear is tended much closer to the coast than right whales would normally traverse. There are rare exceptions, but the vast majority of whales travel far offshore through the Gulf of Maine. Most Maine fishermen have never seen a right whale, including fishermen offshore, who already fish long trawls to reduce the number of vertical lines as much as can be safely done.

Lately, the whales have been seen much farther north than ever before, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Some have been killed by ship strikes there, and by Canadian fishing gear not rigged with the whale-safe features that Maine gear has employed for many years.

Maine fishermen and government officials believe that reasonable and verifiable efforts, based in common sense, should first be made to see if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between Maine lobster gear and right whale mortality. Those efforts would include;

• Conduct tracking studies, to document that the whales are in the same area as Maine lobster gear.

• Require Maine-specific gear marking to determine whether Maine gear is a problem at all.

• Study environmental changes in the Gulf of Maine that have resulted in changes in food sources and supplies and migration patterns for the whales.

• Use only peer-reviewed threat assessment modeling specific to right whales.

• Mitigate mortality from ship strikes in Canadian-controlled areas.

• Respond with regulations proportional to each threat facing the whales.

No one takes stewardship of the sea more seriously than Maine fishermen, who know all too well that Mother Nature is one tough and unforgiving foe for both whales and fishermen. To stand accused of killing whales without any evidence is blatantly unfair. For the National Marine Fisheries Service to take any action based on the data it has now is totally without merit.

The environmental lobby has made “save the whales” a household rallying cry and would have you believe that standing up for Maine’s fishermen is a vote against saving the right whale. Nothing could be further from the truth. Maine fishermen have, over the years, taken steps at great cost to protect these whales and as recently as 2009, their numbers were increasing.

The heartbeat of the small Maine coastal town is now in the cross hairs of the large and well-funded environmental lobby. At this point, no one knows if the Northern right whale will go extinct or not, but, if the environmental groups have their way, Maine’s fishermen and a cherished way of life certainly will.


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