Lobster fishing has never been an easy way to make a living. Any economic endeavor that relies on natural forces and harvesting natural resources carries risk and uncertainties. As someone who represents coastal communities and as a member of the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee, I’ve learned this firsthand from the hard-working men and women in the industry.

I first wrote about this issue in 2019 in a newspaper column. As I write this new piece, I am shocked and dismayed to see the lobster fishing communities facing increased challenges. This month, a judge ruled in favor of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) opinion on how to best protect right whales. This judge also ruled in favor of achieving a 90% risk reduction in right whale entanglements within the fixed gear industry, of which the lobster industry is one. The result is that the lobster fishery will need to make incredibly significant changes to the way they fish in a year or two, rather than the 10 years that had initially been planned for. This ruling ignores conservation measures already taken by the industry.

For instance, Maine lobster fishermen have been reducing risk to right whales for over 20 years. They’ve replaced floating groundlines with rope that sinks and added more traps to each line, resulting in a reduction of 30,000 miles of rope in the water. In addition, they invested in weak links below the buoys to break if whales encounter gear and they’ve implemented gear marking to identify it if that gear shows up on a right whale entanglement.

Some of these measures have brought risk to fishermen. As one fisherman told me, “Longer trawls means more rope underfoot and some crews would have to hand-set gear rather than use the mechanical equipment. There are too many things going on at once to be safe.”

The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) recently outlined examples of the type of restriction NMFS wants to implement, which will likely result in dramatic changes, such as a year-round closure to all fixed gear fisheries in federal waters, and greater risks to lobstermen. According to DMR, the timeline for achieving these goals is aggressive. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and other groups are moving quickly to best determine the way forward in the courts. The Governor’s Office is also demanding the federal government revisit these decisions.

Finally, the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch program’s recent decision to place Maine lobster on a “red list” – asking consumers to avoid purchasing lobsters – has had the effect of uniting the Maine public in support of the lobster industry and of the men and women who work in it – not only lobstermen, but also processors, drivers, and distributors. The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative is also working hard to combat the message being sent by Seafood Watch, which has ignored not only the fact that there has been no right whale entanglement attributed to Maine gear in 18 years, but also the conservation efforts that the fishery has already employed.

My major takeaway is that Maine’s unique coastline makes this “one size fits all” risk reduction plan impractical, and it does not take into consideration the efforts our lobster fishing communities and our state has made to curate a sustainable fishing industry that protects our waters, aquatic species and our local economies. With the Gulf of Maine’s rapidly rising temperatures, right whales are headed into new territory to look for food, and there is a shared desire to protect them. But we must also protect those whose livelihoods depend on fishing our coast. The diversity of Maine’s lobster industry is important to all of us. I will do my best to keep you informed of how we can all act to support our neighbors, family and wildlife.

Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, serves District 53, representing Arrowsic, Dresden, Georgetown, Phippsburg, Woolwich and part of Richmond in the Maine Legislature.

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