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Guest Column: Whale regulations, 'red list' for lobster absurd

Togue Brawn founded Maine Dayboat Scallops and is a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. Photo courtesy T. Brawn.

A few weeks ago I attended a potluck fundraiser at a local library to raise money for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association’s Legal Defense Fund. MLA President Kristan Porter spoke of the importance of potlucks, where folks to come together to help a fellow community member. It might be a neighbor whose house burned down, or a family with a sick breadwinner. Folks give what they can afford, and sometimes even more than they can afford, because they recognize the importance of community and realize “it could happen to us.”

Well, if you’re a member of Maine’s lobster industry, it’s happening to you.

My father lobstered from the mid 1970’s until he died in 2017. I have incredibly fond memories of helping him on his boat and helping him sell his “Bait Safes.” The lobster industry was an important source of income in our family and I’ll always have a soft spot for it, even if it does cast an outsized shadow on what I believe is the REAL star of Maine’s seafood show: dayboat scallops (no bias here!). My fondness for the fishery, a desire to protect my state’s economy and an allegiance to my lobstermen friends is NOT why I’m angry about the threats facing Maine’s lobster industry right now. I’m angry because this situation is absurd.

Earlier this summer the Monterey Bay Aquarium changed its categorization of Maine lobster from “recommended” to “avoid.” Then the Marine Stewardship Council suspended its certification of Maine›s lobster fishery. Both these decisions were taken because the fishery is not in compliance with federal law, in part because rope used in the lobster fishery is capable of entangling the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. Note the phrasing there, because it’s important: the ropes are capable of entangling right whales.

Beginning in the mid 1990’s, lobstermen underwent a series of significant and very expensive changes to prevent interaction with right whales. These measures included replacing floating rope with sinking rope, installing weak-links on lines so if a whale was entangled it would be able to break free, and requiring all gear to be marked so the source of any potential entanglements could be identified.

The success of these measures is evidenced by the fact that there have been no documented cases of a right whale being entangled in Maine lobster gear in almost 20 years. It’s also worth noting that until recently the right whale population appeared to be rebounding.

But for unknown, or at least unprovable reasons, the right whale population has declined in recent years, prompting environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failing to adequately protect the whales. As a result of that lawsuit, NMFS has enacted a plan that will further reduce the lobster industry’s already minimal potential risk to right whales by a staggering 98% by 2030.

Maine’s lobster industry has already undertaken extraordinary measures to keep from endangering whales. But unless this latest plan is overturned, the industry will have to meet a 98% reduction. The measures required to achieve that monumental risk reduction (read: gear reduction) would kill the industry. Period. Bye-bye Maine lobster….

Before I go on, I should point out that I’m a hybrid-driving, recycling fanatic environmentalist. I’m by no means suggesting we should prioritize the survival of a fishery over the survival of a species. But that’s the thing: the measures being proposed will not, in fact, save the right whale, because the lobster industry is not actually responsible for its decline.

The latest data suggest the decline in the NARW (North Atlantic Right Whale) population is likely due to a number of factors, with climate change playing a major role. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans, and these warming waters are rendering it less attractive to right whales. Notably, the NARW’s favorite prey species, Calanus finmarchicus, is shifting out of the Gulf of Maine and the whales have followed, so Maine lobster gear is now even less of a threat to right whales.

The Marine Stewardship Council itself has admitted “there is no recent evidence that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales.” But because lobster gear is capable of entangling right whales, and because the actual cause of the decline is unknown, the lobster industry is being forced to account for unknown threats in addition to the minimal threats it actually poses. In other words, the lobster industry is being penalized for having failed to single-handedly bring about the recovery of an endangered species. Wait, what??

Maine’s lobster fishery is rightly regarded as a poster child for sustainability. In fact, it’s a picture-perfect example of just about everything fisheries managers strive to achieve.

For decades, we’ve employed a minimum size catch that allows lobsters to breed before being harvested and a maximum size catch that allows large, reproductive powerhouses to keep doing their thing. We also notch the tail of egg-bearing females to further encourage reproductive success.

And in the late 1990’s, when effort reductions were needed in the fishery, an innovative system of co-management was employed in which Maine state waters were divided into seven zones where local fishermen helped shape management measures tailored to work best in their area.

It’s impossible to assign responsibility for the NARW’s recent decline with any degree of certainty. Climate change, fishing gear entanglement (notably Canadian snow crab gear), ship strikes and who knows what else may all play a part. Whatever the cause, some scientists believe the right whale population has now dipped so low extinction is inevitable no matter what we do. That’s a terrible shame.

But frustration with this unwinnable situation does not justify targeting a fishery that’s doing its damndest to ensure it doesn’t do anything to speed that extinction.

But of course, in today’s world of 10-second attention spans and social media preeminence, a photo of a dying whale with an inaccurate headline blaming Maine’s lobster industry for its predicament will raise a lot more money than sound arguments and logical presentation of data.

Whale rules, wind energy, and who knows what else threaten to fundamentally change or possibly even eliminate this fishery. In our fight for survival, remember the wisdom of the potluck. You’ve got to stick together and fight together.

We should all contribute to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association Save Maine Lobstermen campaign, because winning in court is the best way to protect our future. But we must also remember that those investigating ropeless gear and other seemingly unpalatable options are NOT the enemy. In fact, we may come to a point where their alternatives are the only viable solution for the continuation of the fishery.

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican.” The lobster industry would be wise to apply that to themselves and remember that this fight is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. And in my opinion, you can’t afford to dismiss any angle as you fight for your survival.

Remember the wisdom of the potluck and stick together.

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