“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

The oft-quoted Samuel Johnson line sums up well the recent gathering in Portland of lobster harvesters, managers, researchers, industry experts and government representatives.

Since 1987, the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute has worked to ensure the sustainability and profitability of the lobster fishery in the U.S. and Canada, and for the past 18 years it has convened a gathering of the most committed groups and individuals from both sides of the border at its annual Lobster Town Meeting. Over the two days of this year’s event, the urgency was obvious and the focus on the theme – the U.S.-Canadian lobster fishery and the North Atlantic right whale – whale was sharper than ever.

At near-term stake was the future of the people who gathered, those they represented and the communities from which they came. For the right whale, too, the issue is existential. What could have drifted into an exercise of accusations and finger pointing was ultimately anything but. It was quite evident that all of the voices in the room clearly understood the issue and were committed to continuing to find a resolution.

A collective of eminent scientists and researchers shared information on changing climate and its impact on water temperatures, changing whale and lobster distributions and innovative solutions and technology to address these challenges.

Maine lobster industry leaders spoke about the many safeguards they have implemented, starting back in the 1990s, long before government directives were imposed. They continue to test ropeless traps, “buoy on demand” technology and weak link ropes. They continue their efforts to extract lost or “ghost” gear. I believe their efforts have been far more successful than sometimes portrayed.


It has only been since 2016 that the right whale has been spotted in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, as temperatures off the northeastern U.S. coast warmed and the whales moved north. The protective steps Canada has taken since then – and reviewed and improved every year – are aggressive and results-oriented. They include “dynamic” or temporary fishing area closures when right whales are detected, either visually, by the numerous aircraft and drone flights, or acoustically by surface buoys or mobile submersible gliders.

We continue to be vigilant in addressing the issue of ghost gear, performing post-season sweeps of fishing areas and making it mandatory, by law, to register any and all lost gear. All vessels over 13 meters (42.6 feet) must reduce speeds in certain areas from April 20, when the ice retreats, and we continue to work with harvesters on gear technology development.

I must commend Gov. Mills and Maine’s congressional delegation on not only securing the six-year pause on the new fishing regulations scheduled to be imposed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which would have affected many, but also for finding the money to help accelerate further advancements in best practices, including monitoring of whales.

It is obvious that climate change will continue to affect the habitat of the right whale, as will increased vessel traffic and anthropogenic noise that results from offshore wind development. The impacts must be understood, mitigated and managed.

It is my view that all sectors of the fishing community on both sides of the border remain totally committed to doing their utmost to address the right whale issue, and to ensure a sustainable and profitable lobster industry. The gathering in Portland reflected the reality of the situation.

That fact was maybe best articulated by a delegate with a foot in both worlds: Curt Brown, a commercial fisherman who holds a master’s in marine biology from the University of Maine. Brown told conference delegates: “This isn’t a Canada vs. U.S. issue. It’s not a Massachusetts vs. Maine issue, or a crab vs. lobster issue. It’s an all of us committing to best practices issue. We’re all in the same boat.”

The focus of this conference certainly proved that. We are all in the same boat.

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