DEER ISLE — Fishermen in the heart of Maine’s $485 million lobster industry don’t like a state proposal to protect endangered right whales from buoy lines, arguing that it forces them to give up too much to fix a problem they aren’t causing.

About 75 people packed a local lobster board meeting in Deer Isle on Thursday night to vent about the plan, which they argue is overly complicated, puts them in danger and is unlikely to help the species it is trying to save.

About 75 lobstermen packed a state hearing on Maine’s proposed right whale protection plan in Deer Isle on Thursday night. Staff photo by Penelope Overton

“I wonder why the state made it so confusing and so difficult,” said Richard “Dick” Larrabee Jr. of Stonington. “This is stupid. I don’t want you to pass this because this does not work. It makes us look like a bunch of monkeys.”

The Deer Isle meeting was the first stop in the state Department of Marine Resources’ monthlong presentation of its right whale plan to the local lobster zone councils in each of Maine’s seven lobster fishing zones, from Whiting to Kennebunk.

The agency submitted its plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service two weeks ago. That agency will consider Maine’s plan, along with those of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, when drafting proposed new right whale fishing regulations.

The heart of the state proposal lowers the number of buoy lines that could entangle whales by setting a minimum number of traps fished on each line in deeper waters, and requiring the use of lines with weak points to help entangled whales break free.

Fishermen at the Deer Isle meeting focused on how dangerous it could be to require those among them who fish in deeper waters to use rope weakened by knots, splices or sleeves while hauling trawls with more traps on them.

Weak rope is more likely to break when lifting a trawl loaded down with heavy traps, especially when a weak point passes through the hauler as the boat is surging up and down in choppy waters, Vinalhaven lobsterman Jake Thompson said.

Thompson, the chairman of the local lobster zone council, said a fellow lobsterman who fished off Vinalhaven was badly injured a few years ago when a rope he was hauling snapped and hit him in the head.

“I feel like nobody is listening to us,” Thompson said. “The feds aren’t listening. The state didn’t listen when it came up with this plan. It’s really frustrating. I don’t know if anybody in the room tonight heard us, either. We’re going to get hurt.”

Maine is seeking federal approval for flexibility to allow alternative forms of fishing restrictions in some cases where federal whale protections would put lobstermen in physical danger or run needlessly afoul of regional fishing practices.

Staff who drafted the DMR whale plan urged the fishermen in Deer Isle to come up with suggestions on how better to achieve the risk reduction to right whales that the federal regulators are seeking, which is at least 60 percent.

Megan Ware, the agency’s director of external affairs, urged fishermen to send her samples of the kind of rope and weak points they’d rather use so the state could run tests to see how easily they’d break, and if an entangled whale could escape them.

No one proposed any specific alternatives at the meeting Thursday, but Thompson said after the session had closed that he would try to organize a group of fishermen to come up with protection measures they could stomach.

The state’s biggest lobster trade group, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, doesn’t support the state proposal. Executive Director Patrice McCarron said the board feels Maine’s new plan, while better, is still “shooting at the wrong target.”

“What you hear loud and clear at all these meetings is the plan doesn’t make sense to the fishermen because the plan is trying to solve a problem Maine lobstermen really don’t feel is our responsibility,” McCarron said. “We just can’t agree with that.”

None of the 30 right whales that have been seriously injured or killed since 2017 can be attributed to the Maine lobster industry, according to federal data. Most of the incidents occurred in Canadian waters, and of the eight ship strikes, only one occurred in U.S. waters.

The latest state proposal includes a plan to give lobster regions flexibility to achieve the same amount of whale protection in their own way, but that’s merely “tinkering with the edges,” not changing the plan’s overall approach, McCarron said.

The group plans to draft its own right whale proposal in the coming weeks, she said.

Stonington lobsterman Robert Ray warned fishermen of shifting the burden of buoy line reductions to offshore lobstermen. If forced, fishermen with that much invested in their boat and business will move inshore to avoid strict offshore rules.

“We’ll all be overly constricted, fighting for the same bottom,” Ray warned.

Some lobstermen said the state proposal, while bad, was better than initially feared.

“I don’t think anybody likes the plan,” said lobsterman John Williams of Stonington, a member of a federal task force tasked with drafting right whale fishing regulations. “But we are in a way better place than I thought we might be.”

Scientists believe that only about 406 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before and recovered, but low calving rates, ship strikes, and entanglements, especially in Canada, have sent its numbers tumbling.

Regulators say even one death a year could doom the right whale to extinction.

 

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