A national environmental group is asking federal regulators to ban traditional lobster fishing in areas of the Gulf of Maine where the endangered right whale is known to feed during its annual migration, including the waters off Mount Desert Rock, Jordan Basin and Jeffery’s Ledge.

In a petition submitted to the U.S. Department of Commerce, The Pew Charitable Trusts said the continued use of surface-to-seabed buoy lines in the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries poses an existential threat to the right whale, whose numbers have dwindled to about 400 as a result of deadly ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement.

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit wants the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow only ropeless fishing in these areas, as well as a region south of Martha’s Vineyard, while federal regulators work on adopting permanent right whale protections. A draft federal rule to protect the whale had been due out in July, but is now delayed until late summer or early fall.

“Current rulemaking efforts intended to develop measures to reduce the risk of entanglement of right whales are taking far too long to meet statutory mandates to protect right whales,” the petition reads. “Emergency protections are necessary to prevent further unlawful takes of right whales, and to prevent the species from further decline and extinction.”

Pew claims the economic impact of banning traditional lobstering and crabbing in these areas would be minimal because most of Maine’s $485 million annual lobster fishery occurs closer to shore. But Pew’s assertion can’t be confirmed because the state doesn’t track where lobsterman set their traps.

The petition from Pew is the latest in a series of legal and administrative efforts to protect the right whale that could transform the U.S. lobster fishery, requiring fishermen to overhaul the way they have fished for generations or, in this case, adopt experimental trapping methods that some say they can’t afford and wouldn’t work in rough New England waters.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is working on a draft regulation that will outline new right whale protections that all U.S. lobstermen must adopt, which could range from seasonal area closures like the one enacted in 2014 in Cape Cod Bay, to a mix of trap reductions and more traps per buoy line as recommended by a whale task force.

Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher announced the filing of the Pew petition Thursday in an online meeting of lobstermen who fish from midcoast Maine to Stonington and Vinalhaven, Maine’s two biggest and most productive lobster ports.


“I can’t be sure how Commerce is going to proceed on this,” Keliher said. “It’s really hard to say. I hope the administration would not redirect staff time and resources away from the process they are undertaking to develop the proposed rule to develop emergency measures.”

However, the political pressure being applied by the environmental community is “incredibly significant,” Keliher said. This petition is another way for that lobby to pressure the National Marine Fisheries Service to adopt a final rule quickly, as well as promote the possibility of ropeless fishing in the developing rulemaking.

Keliher also discussed bait issues facing the state lobster fleet, predicting more deep cuts in the quota of herring that is a favorite among the industry and announcing that Maine was closing its menhaden fishery on Thursday after catching all of the state quota for that substitute bait. Maine will now ask interstate regulators for permission to start fishing the New England quota.

The areas of the Gulf of Maine under consideration for seasonal closures include:

• Down East summer closure, Aug. 1 – Oct. 31, around Mount Desert Rock and Inner and Outer Schoodic Ridge

• Western Gulf of Maine closure, May 1 – July 31, around Jeffery’s Ledge

• Offshore migration closure, Oct. 1 – April 30, from Jordan Basin to Stellwagen Bank National National Marine Sanctuary

According to the Pew petition, these areas are rich with the kind of plankton that right whales like to eat on their migration path from Florida to Canada.

Scientists believe the species, which was once hunted nearly to extinction for its blubber, cannot survive if even one whale dies a year in U.S. waters, whether that be from entanglement in fishing lines or gillnets or from blunt trauma caused by ship collisions. Maine regulators and fishermen argue there is no proof that Maine lobster gear has ever killed a right whale.

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