More than 950 square miles of the Gulf of Maine will be off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January – the area’s most lucrative season – under new federal rules designed to protect an endangered whale species.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday released a new set of rules for New England’s lobster fishery aimed at reducing the risk to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and other whale species. Scientists believe there are only about 360 right whales left worldwide, so the species has become a flashpoint between environmentalists, federal regulators and fishermen because of their tendency to become entangled in fishing gear.

The new rules will allow lobstermen to string more traps on a single rope – reducing the number of “vertical lines” in the water but potentially making trap lines more dangerous, fishermen contend – while requiring weaker ropes to allow entangled whales to break free. Lobster and crab fishermen also will have to add state-specific color markings to gear.

The prohibition against the use of traditional, rope-and-buoy lobster traps in the newly restricted federal waters off midcoast Maine occurs at a time of year when lobster often fetch the most money per pound. According to federal officials, the closure will directly impact roughly 60 lobstermen in the restricted area and another 60 who might be impacted by the others relocating, but not the vast majority of lobstermen who fish closer to shore.

Still, many industry officials worry that the changes will cause undue harm to the lobster fishery, which is the backbone of Maine’s fishing industry. The new rules were criticized by all sides in the debate – conservation groups pushing for stronger safeguards for whales, lobstermen who feel wrongly targeted and Maine political leaders who are fiercely protective of the state’s iconic lobster industry. 

“We agree that we must protect the fragile right whale population, but we must do so without endangering human lives or livelihoods,” Gov. Janet Mills and the four members of the state’s congressional delegation said in a rare joint statement. “It is unacceptable that Maine lobstermen and women continue to be the primary target of burdensome regulations despite the multiple effective mitigation measures they have taken and the data showing that ship strikes and Canadian snow crab gear pose substantially greater risks to right whales.”

NOAA scientists say the agency’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan will reduce reduce risk of right whale injury and death in the Northeast by 69 percent. Tuesday’s plan is the first phase in a decade-long federal strategy that fishing industry representatives say is unrealistic and unsustainable for the fishing fleet, but that conservationists say is too little to prevent extinction of the right whale.

“We deeply appreciate the sacrifices that fishermen have made and are going to continue to make to protect right whales,” said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney with the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation. “But we are talking about the extinction of a species from a fairly lucrative fishery as far as fisheries go in the United States.”

Fuller said the Conservation Law Foundation is “very likely” to challenge the rules in court in order to push for an 80 percent risk reduction in the next several years rather than “fiddling while Rome burns.”

HOTLY CONTESTED CHANGE

The plans released Tuesday include gear modifications 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, modifying existing seasonally restricted areas to allow ropeless fishing, and adding additional, seasonally restricted areas that are closed to buoy lines but allow ropeless fishing.

The latter, which includes a new seasonal closure in a large area about 30 miles off midcoast Maine known as Lobster Management Area 1, has been one of the most hotly contested of the plan’s changes. 

In a joint statement, the governor and Maine’s four members of Congress – Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden – said Tuesday that Maine’s lobster industry implemented “weak link” mandates in 1997 and 2007 to protect whales. During the current process, the lobster industry and other stakeholders, as well as the state, provided feedback to federal officials to ensure the regulations were “fair, safe and reflect the reality in the Gulf of Maine.”

“Unfortunately, the final rule does not meet those standards,” the group stated.

The newly restricted area is more than 950 square miles and stretches roughly from Mount Desert Island to eastern Casco Bay. 

The rule closes the area to traditional fishing from October through January but allows buoyless or “ropeless” fishing – a new and experimental technology that brings lobster traps to the surface using smartphone signals.

The late fall and winter months aren’t traditionally the busy season for Maine lobstermen, but for offshore fishermen, the colder temperatures mean harder shells and higher prices, making it a lucrative time of year.

Federal officials estimate the closure will cost Maine’s lobstermen between 5 and 10 percent of their total revenue each year.

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

The gear modifications required by the rule will go into effect May 1, 2022, which is the start of the American lobster/Jonah crab fishing year, NOAA said in a news release Tuesday. The changes to the seasonally restricted areas will go into effect 30 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register, which NOAA expects to happen this fall.

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., in 2018. With only about 368 of the whales still alive, multiple environmental organizations involved in the regulatory fight over fishing say new federal restrictions don’t go far enough. Associated Press/Michael Dwyer

Estimates of the total cost of all changes across the region – including gear marking, weak rope, restricted area and gear conversion costs – range from $5.9 million to $12.8 million annually, and $28 million to $61 million in total, according to a draft environmental impact statement. 

MORE CHANGES COMING

Further changes are headed for the lobster industry in the next decade – Tuesday’s rules mark the first phase of a roughly 10-year plan that federal officials hope will reduce the risk to the whales by 98 percent.

NOAA released its final biological opinion May 27 – a requirement under the federal Endangered Species Act that becomes the basis for rulemaking surrounding the specific species, in this case, the North Atlantic right whale.

Federal officials found that, provided they meet the reduction targets in the implementation framework, none of the 10 fisheries included in the document, including the lobster fishery, were “likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the North Atlantic right whales.”

Still, Maine Department of Marine Resources officials have said the 98 percent risk reduction target over the span of a decade means only one thing: “a complete reinvention of the fishery as we know it.”

The nearly 600-page biological opinion creates a four-phased approach to all but eliminate whale deaths in federally managed fishing grounds.

The first phase in the conservation framework, the “take reduction plan,” calls for a 60 percent reduction in right whale mortalities and serious injuries this year.

The second and third phases would include an additional 60 percent reduction in 2025 and another 87 percent in 2030 – in total a roughly 98 percent reduction over the 10-year span.

But lobster fishery professionals have said there’s not a lot more to give. The only way to achieve such a figure would require the state to “completely reinvent the fishery and convert largely to ropeless fishing,” Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, has said.

Keliher has called it an “untenable solution,” as the technology is still under development and is expensive. To convert the entire fleet would cost an estimated half a billion dollars or more, he said.

BOTH SIDES OPPOSE PLAN

In a February letter to NOAA’s regional fisheries director, the governor expressed “grave concerns” about the agency’s goal of a 98 percent risk reduction to whales from the fishing industry by 2030.

“It is hard for my administration and the industry to imagine how these targets could not be achieved without a conversion to ropeless fishing – a still highly untested technology which raises more questions than it answers,” Mills wrote at the time. “If this comes to pass, it is not only fishermen and their crew who will be impacted by a significant change in the operations of the fishery. Gear suppliers, trap builders, rope manufacturers – all these businesses face a deeply uncertain future as a result of the proposed 98 percent risk reduction over the coming decade.”

Lobster fisherman Sam Cornish unloads lobsters at Interstate Lobster Wharf in Harpswell on Tuesday. Federal officials estimate that closing more than 950 square miles of the Gulf of Maine to traditional lobstering from October through January will cost Maine’s lobstermen 5 to 10 percent of their total revenue each year. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Since 2017, 34 right whales have been killed, according to NOAA. An earlier estimate of 33 deaths attributed 21 to Canada and 12 to the U.S. 

Eleven incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including at least two in U.S. waters, but none that can be linked to the Maine lobster industry. The most recent known Maine entanglement occurred in 2004, but the whale survived.

Additionally, since 2017, 16 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 368 of the endangered whales still alive, that reflects a more than 10 percent decline in their population in under five years. An estimated 85 percent of right whales show signs of entanglements, according to officials. 

Multiple environmental organizations involved in the regulatory fight over fishing and right whales said the rules do not go far enough.

Ocean preservation nonprofit Oceana said the Biden administration “failed to take aggressive action” and accused it of over-relying on “weak rope” that may allow adult whales to break free but could still maim or kill whale calves or juveniles.

“Oceana is committed to ensuring North Atlantic right whales have meaningful protection from all threats across their range, from Florida to eastern Canada,” Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber said in a statement. “As it stands, this rule leaves the whales vulnerable and jeopardizes their future, as well as the future of the U.S. lobster and crab fisheries, which could be shut down if North Atlantic right whales are not protected. There’s no time to waste – the rule must be strengthened immediately with expanded time/area management and effective monitoring if North Atlantic right whales are to survive.”

Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, which supports the fishing industry, called on state and federal authorities to do all they can to change the new whale-protection plan.

“Maine lobstermen and women are not killing right whales,” the foundation’s executive director, Crystal Canney, said in a statement. “Why would you penalize an iconic Maine industry for the sake of being able to say you are saving right whales? It’s like cutting off an arm when it’s the foot that is the problem, and pretending you have fixed the problem.”

Producing about 82 percent of the country’s lobster, Maine’s lobster fishery is the largest in the United States, but fishermen say they’re not seeing the whales in Maine waters, despite bearing the brunt of the burden in the new plan. 

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

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