Environmentalists campaigning to save the endangered right whale and lobstermen working to protect their industry agree that a federal proposal to protect the species is flawed but for different reasons, with the fishermen saying it goes too far and environmentalists saying it doesn’t go far enough.

In a virtual public hearing Tuesday night, representatives from both groups asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to take a second look at its proposed changes to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan.

The proposal aims to reduce the risk to the North Atlantic right whales by at least 60 percent and includes plans to modify gear configurations to reduce the number of vertical lines by requiring more traps between buoy lines, introducing weak insertions or weak rope into buoy lines so that a rope will break if a whale becomes entangled, modify existing seasonal restricted areas to allow ropeless fishing and add additional seasonal restricted areas that are closed to buoy lines but allow ropeless fishing.

The proposal also calls for modifications to gear marking, using state-specific colors for gear marks to better identify where a whale became entangled. Maine already implemented its own marking program over the summer so its purple designation will stand.

This plan does not include measures to help prevent ship strikes or reduce mortality and serious injuries in Canadian waters, which account for the majority of right whale deaths. 

If adopted, officials estimate the proposed rule would cost fisherman and the states – Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island – anywhere from $6.9 million to $15.4 million in the first year, and between $28 million and $61 million after six years. 

It is unclear exactly when these rules would go into effect, but regulators expect the rule will be finalized sometime this summer.

The state’s $485 million-a-year industry produces about 82 percent of the country’s lobster, and fishermen say they’re not seeing the whales in Maine waters, despite bearing the brunt of the burden in the proposed plan. 

Patrick Keliher, the commissioner for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, told officials on Tuesday that the department understands and supports the need for additional protections for right whales, but fears the NOAA is “moving forward with no care about collateral damage.”

“One size fits all does not work along the coast of Maine,” he said. “It’s difficult to see ourselves as part of the problem when we haven’t seen an entanglement in more than a decade

Since 2017, 33 right whales have been killed, according to NOAA. Of those, 21 were in Canada and 12 were in the U.S. 

Ten incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including two in U.S. waters, but none can be linked to the Maine lobster industry. 

The most recent known Maine entanglement occurred in 2004, but the whale survived.

Since 2017, 15 live whales have been documented with serious injuries from entanglements or vessel strikes. “Serious injuries” means the whale is likely to die from its injuries, though it was alive at last sighting. 

With only about 366 of the endangered whales still alive, that reflects a more than 10 percent decline in their population in less than five years. An estimated 85 percent of right whales show signs of entanglements, federal officials say. 

Both sides argue that NOAA needs updated data, both surrounding how many whales are still alive (the plan is operating under the previous figure of about 400), and where exactly they’re going and when.

“We need to start tracking these whales,” lobsterman Jarod Bray said. “We need real data. We just put a rover on Mars, why can’t we tag a whale?”

Erica Fuller, representing the Conservation Law Foundation, said the proposal is “destined for failure and it needs to be redone.”

The 60 percent risk reduction goal is based on old data, she said.

Many on Tuesday suggested that a target of at least 80 percent is necessary to save the species.

Lobsterman Brennan Strong argued that before implementing any rule changes, officials should study how the decline in ocean vessel traffic caused by the coronavirus pandemic may have impacted the right whale population. Cruise ships all but stopped last year while lobstermen deployed the same number of traps, he said.

One of the most hotly contested changes is the addition of a seasonal closure about 30 miles off midcoast Maine known as Lobster Management Area 1. 

This area is more than 950 square miles and stretches roughly from Mount Desert Island down to eastern Casco Bay. 

The plan would allow only ropeless fishing from October through January.

Federal officials are also considering an alternative that would implement the closure only if certain triggers are met and whales are found to be in the area. 

The NOAA estimates that 45 federally licensed boats fish in the area, but lobstermen have said the figures are grossly underestimated. 

Even with just 45, the four-month closure could cost fishermen anywhere from $106,000 to $315,000. 

The estimated cost does not include the potential revenue loss that some lobstermen are concerned will result when those boats need to relocate and move inshore, crowding the bottom and resulting in decreased landings for everyone. 

Nor does it include the cost to transition to ropeless fishing, which Keliher said will be substantial. 

“Fishermen will be unable to absorb the increased operations costs associated with ropeless fishing, which, for a lobsterman fishing a full allocation of traps in eight trap trawls, could amount to $375,000,” he said in a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service on Thursday.

That number also does not consider the loss of business to associated marine service and supply industries, he noted. 

“Ropeless gear will be a disaster for everyone,” Strong told officials. “It will put me and others out of business.”

Friendship-based lobsterman Dustin Delano agreed.

“Environmentalists know nothing about fishing,” he said. “They do not have the right to tell us how to fish and do not have the right to think they are better people than us.”

“Maine lobstermen are real people. Our entire life savings are tied up in this industry,” he said, and if ropeless gear becomes required in order to fish “90 percent of us will have to find something else to do.”

“I don’t see how Maine lobstermen can afford it,” lobsterman Eben Nieuwkerk added.

The cost will drive all the smaller boats out of the water and “price all the young people out” of the industry, he said, calling the proposal “absolutely unacceptable.”

Many environmentalists, however, wholly supported ropeless fishing.

Bill McWeeny, a representative for Mainers Guarding Right Whales, said the group “supports the reduction of gear in the water through the complete conversion of the industry to ropeless fishing.”

The industry has proven itself to be incredibly resourceful, he said, and the protection of the right whales is both a “moral and humane issue that the fishing industry needs to take responsibility for.”

CT Harry, a representative for the International Fund for Animal Welfare argued in support of a plan that reduces risk to whales by 80 percent, but said that in order to do that there needs to be more incentives for the fishing industry to go ropeless.

“I support whatever is most going to protect them and trust human beings will find a way to sort this out over time,” Sarah Stewart said. “Human beings have the extraordinary capacity to grow and change. We can shift into doing difficult things if we have to,” but “extinction would be forever, an enormous human loss.”

Maine proposed its own plan to help save the whales last year last year, but since estimated risk reduction capped out at about 52 percent rather than the target 60, federal officials rejected the proposal.

Like the federal proposal, Maine’s plan called for cutting the number of buoy lines and requiring weak points in buoy lines to help entangled whales break free. The plan did not include the additional closure but did seek federal approval for alternative fishing restrictions, or conservation equivalencies, that achieve the same level of risk reduction in cases where a statewide whale-inspired fishing rule would put lobstermen in physical danger or run needlessly afoul of regional fishing practices. 

The state argued that careful use of alternative protections to achieve the same conservation benefit could protect whales, fishermen and the state’s iconic industry

However, the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that Maine’s plan did not go far enough.

While the proposed rule has a reduction target of at least 60 percent, federal officials hope to increase that to 98 percent within the next 10 years – a lifesaver for the whales, but a possible death sentence for Maine’s lobster fishery. 

At least, that’s the concern shared by the Maine Department of Marine Resources and Gov. Janet Mills.  

A biological opinion, a requirement under the Endangered Species Act, becomes the basis of rule-making surrounding the specific species, in this case, the North Atlantic right Whale. 

According to a letter to the fisheries service from Keliher, the Marine Resources commissioner, the 98 percent reduction “will be devastating to the viability of Maine’s fixed-gear fisheries.”

According to Keliher, the only way to achieve such a figure would require the state to “completely reinvent the fishery and convert largely to ropeless fishing,” an “untenable solution” as the technology is still under development and is expensive, with an estimated cost of over half a billion dollars to convert the entire fleet. 

In a letter on Monday, Mills expressed “grave concerns” about the biological opinion.

“In the absence of a significant change, this framework will necessitate the complete reinvention of the Maine lobster fishery,” Mills said in a news release. “If this comes to pass, it is not only fishermen and their crews who will be impacted, gear suppliers, trap builders, rope manufacturers – all these businesses face a deeply uncertain future.”

The department has not yet filed its official comments on the proposed amendments to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. Comments are due March 1. 

A second public hearing on the changes, focused on northern Maine, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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