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Guest Column: Maine lobstermen deserve credit for two decades of effort

First published May 6 in the Ellsworth American

In a recent column, “The Maine lobster industry is overlooking weak sleeves” , a right whale activist alleged that lobstermen are intentionally ignoring a simple solution to make Maine’s lobster fishery safer for right whales. That is simply not true. Just as I wouldn’t go to a dentist for back surgery, I urge you not to believe someone who clearly has not taken the time to understand the great lengths lobstermen have gone to to help save the endangered right whale. I want to present the other side of the story.

Maine lobstermen have been at the forefront of right whale conservation and research efforts for the last 25 years. We have removed 30,000 miles of rope from the water by taking out buoy lines and using rope that sinks between our traps. We rig our gear so that there is never rope floating on the surface where a right whale might feed, we’ve added weak links to our buoy lines so whales can break free and added unique marks to our buoy lines so we know if Maine lobster gear is responsible for an entanglement. These measures have worked. There has not been a documented right whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear in nearly 20 years and Maine lobster gear has never been known to kill a right whale.

Time and again lobstermen have changed how they fish in order to protect right whales and continue to do so today. MLA photo

Yet, on May 1, the federal government imposed a whole new set of gear changes. Rather than shun responsibility as the author states, Maine lobstermen, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) and the state of Maine have been working hard to ensure the industry complies with these rules.

In fact, the MLA has been on the front lines of developing whale-safe gear for more than a decade. Maine lobstermen worked with federal scientists to develop the 600-pound weak link, which we have fished below our buoys since 2001. The MLA worked with researchers and lobstermen to test weak rope and other buoy line modifications beginning in 2005. And the MLA purchased and distributed two sizes of “weak sleeves” to lobstermen in 2018 to test the viability of this gear modification in the Maine lobster fishery.

I personally tested these weak sleeves and suffered some gear loss as a result.

It is important to understand that the Maine lobster fishery is extremely diverse. Our boats, gear and local fishing conditions vary dramatically along the entire coast. One solution will not work for all, and it is imperative that lobstermen are able to choose gear that will allow them to safely and reliably haul their traps and, most important, make it home alive. I can tell you from personal experience that you do not want to be on deck when a buoy line snaps while gear is being hauled. It is up to each lobsterman to decide the safest way to weaken buoy lines — they may choose a plastic weak link, a manufactured weak rope or weak sleeves (which are available for purchase in Maine at Hamilton Marine).

As the federal government itself acknowledged when it recently delayed enforcement of the May 1 rule, “unanticipated supply chain delays are preventing some of the fleet from fully coming into compliance … New England fishermen have been in the forefront of efforts to design weak rope and weak inserts. Nearly every weak rope and weak insert that has been approved for use under the new regulations was designed by, or developed in collaboration with, fishermen.”

No lobsterman would ever want to harm a whale. Rather than blaming lobstermen for wanting to do what works best for their business, the writer would be better served to work with the industry and to recognize that Maine lobstermen have been stewards of our ocean for more than a century and have done everything the government has asked of us for more than 20 years to successfully reduce our already minimal risk to the right whale.

Craig Stewart fishes from Long Island and serves on the Board of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

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