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Maine Lobstermen Make Their Voices Heard

In December 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released its draft amendments to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, commonly known as the whale rules. The draft rules, designed to reduce risk to right whales from lobster gear by 60%, require adding additional traps to trawl lines based on distance from shore, inserting weak points in vertical lines so that the lines break at 1,700 pounds pressure, creating a large area closed to traditional fishing for four months each winter yet open to lobstermen using ropeless fishing gear, and specific gear marks on lobster gear by state.

In January 2021, NMFS released its draft Biological Opinion on ten U.S. federal fixed gear fisheries, including lobster and Jonah crab. The draft opinion stated that the fisheries did not pose a threat to the continued existence of the North Atlantic right whale provided that the fisheries comply with a ten-year Conservation Framework the goal of which is reducing risk of serious injury or mortality to right whales by 98% from U.S. fishing gear. The first phase of this framework is implementation of the proposed whale plan for the lobster fishery. The Biological Opinion must by finalized by a court-ordered deadline of May 31, 2021 so the fishery can continue to operate.

The combined impact of the draft Biological Opinion and the amended whale rules drew a barrage of letters from fishermen throughout New England, but particularly from Maine lobstermen. Among many objections, lobstermen pointed out that Maine lobster gear is not driving the right whale decline; there are serious safety issues presented by conservation measures proposed in the whale rules; and fear of a cataclysmic economic effect a 98% reduction in risk to right whales would have on Maine’s economy and coastal communities.

We present excerpts from selected letters here:

Brennan Strong , Yarmouth My name is Brennan Strong and I am a 22-year-old entrepreneur, nature lover, and commercial lobsterman from Yarmouth, Maine … The BiOp considers a model scenario that completely shuts down all lobster, Jonah crab, gill-net, and other trap/pot fisheries in the U.S. This scenario predicts that the right whale population will continue to decline because the whales will continue to die from vessel strikes and entanglement in Canadian fisheries, and because reproduction remains low. This makes it abundantly clear that Maine lobstermen are not the problem, and that shutting down Maine fisheries is not the solution! … The lobster industry is being made responsible for risk that is not ours. We need to know that Canada and the rest of the U.S. fishing fleet is on par with Maine’s current rules that have been saving whales for decades.

Hugh Bowen, Freeport … At 46 years old, I have been trapping lobsters for almost 40 years, starting in a small open vessel with my father to progressively larger ones. I now have invested heavily in a boat capable of fishing in the dead of winter 20-30 miles off the coast … Lobstermen are NOT the reason right whale populations are so low, but now we have been tasked with saving them? I feel we are being targeted by government to ease the burden government is facing in the form of lawsuits from environmental groups that pull at the heartstrings of an ignorant public (which in turn fund their paychecks) … In closing: we are not at fault for the right whale population levels. Yes, there are some whale entanglements with fishing gear. If there are no entanglements with right whales from here on, will that save the population? NO. It is an absolute ignorant shame it didn’t dawn on the movement to save right whales that the fishing community could have been the whales’ greatest ally.

David Lunt, Frenchboro I write to you, NOAA, as a sixth-generation islander and fisherman from Frenchboro, Outer Long Island, Maine. I have been fishing the waters off Frenchboro for over 40 years, and have participated in, and been regulated out of, multiple fisheries in that time. The only viable fishery left for me, and most of those in the marine fisheries industry, is lobster. The proposed regulations to reduce the threat from Maine lobster fishing to the endangered right whale population will ultimately put me, and most other lobstermen, out of business….The larger issue is that when these adaptations do not have the desired effect in increasing the right whale population simply because, as stated so many times before, the Maine lobster gear is not causing their demise, the Maine lobster industry will be forced to undergo measures to reach the 98% threat reduction. The bottom line is, in 10 years, the Maine lobster fishery will cease to exist.

Jeffrey Libby, Beals … It is all too convenient to blame the Maine lobster industry for a decline in the Right Whale Population, but the evidence simply does not support or justify such accusations. The reality that our gear is not contributing to the decline is a simple, unequivocal fact amongst those who are intimately familiar with our fishery. Ropeless fishing has been suggested. This technology may work in some small-scale fisheries which operate in different waters and with different fishing methods than we do in the Gulf of Maine, but it would not work here. Anyone who has spent a day on a Maine lobster boat and seen the techniques with which we fish understands this.

Nathaniel Snow, Bass Harbor My name is Nathaniel Snow. I am a first-generation lobster fisherman out of Bass Harbor Maine, fishing both state waters as well as federal waters in LMA1. … There are . . . many safety risks from the proposed rule. Weak lines are more likely to break under tension, especially during hangdowns. There is a potential that these lines could fly through the air when they part, causing harm to the vessel and crew. This is all the more likely to happen when the load on the line is increased, such as when more traps are added to the trawl. Trawling up not only increases the load on our lines, it also increases the load on the block, winch and other equipment. This gear becomes more likely to catastrophically fail under the increased load, potentially causing harm to the vessel and crew. Additionally, working bigger trawls on deck increases the weight on the vessel, as well as the line on deck. These lines are more likely to entangle crewmen, and the added weight makes the vessel more dangerous to maneuver in rough weather, while also increasing the odds of capsizing.

Town of Vinalhaven The proposed rule changes for LMA1 and Maine waters pose a risk to the lives of the fishermen, present an impossible financial burden for these small businesses, and threaten our community’s economic well-being and culture heritage … In summary, Maine fishermen are being asked to take responsibility for harm to right whales from risks beyond their control. NOAA has not done enough to track the movements of the North Right Whales and the mortality and severe injury data that is provided by NOAA does not support the level of risk reduction forced on the US fishing industry.

Rebekah Hodgson, Jonesboro My name is Rebekah Hodgson. I am a 3rd generation lobsterman from the very small coastal town of Jonesboro, Maine. My boat is moored up in the Chandler River. I was raised on my father’s lobster boat and was taught all I know about the lobster industry from him … Asking for a risk reduction of 98% by 2030 would wipe out the entire coast of Maine fishing industry… If you step inland, turn around, and take a look at the coast of Maine, many if not all, coastal towns are supported in some form by lobstermen. Maine lobster industry drives the coastal economy and lobster boats help support over 10,000 people on the coast! $485 million dollars was generated from the lobster industry in 2019. Without that, Maine coastal towns will wilt away.

Jack Merrill, Islesford The loss of right whales in the last four years is indeed tragic. It should be pointed out, however, that the right whale population has shown dramatic growth from the 1990s up until the last few years, when birth rates leveled off. Without a doubt, 2017-2019 was a terrible time period for them, but, as pointed out by California marine scientist Erin Meyer-Gutbroad, this was due to entanglements occurring in Canada, caused by a snow crab fishery that had no whale friendly regulations. No deaths can be, or ever have been, attributed to Maine lobster gear… How do Maine lobstermen reduce from the number of deaths and serious injuries to right whales when none are due to Maine gear? The proposed rule seems based on possibility, an imaginary world a long way from probability. Worse yet, proposed additional reductions over the next ten years would result in a 98% reduction in vertical lines. Say goodbye to the most successful, responsible, and sustainable fishery in the world.

Jordan Drouin, Cutler My name is Jordan Drouin. I am a third-generation lobster fisherman from Cutler, Maine. I am writing to comment on the proposed regulations intended to protect right whales … Thousands of families rely on the fishery alone, and thousands more rely on the businesses associated with the fishery. I understand we cannot let economics get in the way of saving a species, but the regulations being imposed will quite literally put the coast of Maine out of business. We have already bent over backwards throughout the years with regulations and admittedly they actually worked.

Scott Young I am a 10th generation commercial fisherman from Maine. I started my fishing career out of high school groundfishing and fished 10 years before being over-regulated out of that industry. It seems to me the same thing is happening to the industry that I’m in now, lobstering … If these rules are implemented, and the Maine lobster fishery is shut down because of it, it’s not just the lobstermen that are going to be lost. So will all the businesses in Maine that depend on lobstermen who buy, supplies, tools, food, bait, vehicles etc. I strongly urge you to keep myself and all the other Maine and Massachusetts lobstermen employed in an industry that is our way of life and has been for over 100 years. If these rules are implemented, the state of Maine will no longer be “the way life should be!”

Dustin Emery, Jonesboro … As stated in the Biop, the goal is to reach 98% in reduction over the next ten years. Quite frankly, this will ultimately shutdown the fishery and tens of thousands of hard-working men and women will be out of work. But the suffering for the Maine economy doesn’t stop at the coast. We are talking about losing a billion- dollar-a-year industry. The state’s economy as a whole will take a huge hit. The Maine lobster industry can’t take the brunt of this storm. The Canadian trap/pot fisheries and vessel strikes cause more harm to the right whale than Maine lobstermen and women. There have only been two confirmed entanglements in Maine lobster gear, and that was almost two decades ago in 2002 and 2004…

David Cousens, South Thomaston … Going forward we need to find a way for the whales and lobster fishery to co-exist. The environmentalists are pushing for ropeless fishing. This is not feasible or affordable given the way the lobster fishery operates in Maine. I have looked at every option that ropeless people have put out to try and can unequivocally tell you that none of them will work in the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery. Also, if you think I am going to set traps off my boat with no endlines, therefore no chance of saving my sternman if he gets entangled in the groundline, you are sadly mistaken. I will not do it…

Blake Alley, Steuben Hello, my name is Blake Alley, I’m 37 years old and a fourth-generation lobster fisherman from Steuben, Maine. I started fishing with my father at the age of six and have been running my own boat since 2004 … here are the reasons that these new right whale regulations, and basically any and all right whale regulations in the past, are completely useless, do not save any whales, pollute our oceans, aren’t based on any reliable information, and literally bring me to the edge of insanity…. Lobster fishing has turned into the economic lifeline of coastal Maine, and it hasn’t been by accident. It has taken generations of hard work and conservation, along with an evolution of technology and global economics. Billions of dollars are fused through our industry. Banks, restaurants, carpenters, boat builders, trap builders, mechanics, taxes, on and on rely on our industry. Each of these 5000 boats represent a small business, we are the perfect example of micro-economics. It is also a sustainable and self-regulated industry that we are very proud to protect for future generations. Destroying this with one stroke of a pen for a problem that our fishery did not create would be a completely catastrophic failure.

Bob Baines, Spruce Head For over forty years, I have made my living as a lobster fisherman based out of Spruce Head, Maine, a working harbor with over 100 working commercial fishing boats. I have serious concerns about the Proposed Rule and the effects it will have on my fishing operation and the long-term viability of Maine’s lobster industry…. The proposed offshore restricted area running along the LMA line will only shift gear out of that area and create a fence of gear on the line, and also move more gear inshore, which will create even more trap gear density, increasing the risk to any right whale that may stray into that area. If the intention of the closed area is to move Maine’s lobstermen into ropeless fishing, which is impractical for many known reasons, it will fail, while increasing the risk to the whales…. I support Maine’s proposal for conservation equivalencies. Each of Maine’s seven lobster zones need the ability to adapt measures that could work better for them, while not putting any additional risk on the right whales…. The future viability of Maine’s lobster fishery depends on prudent, reasonable, and common-sense rules that not only protect the right whales, but Maine’s lobster fishermen and coastal communities as well.

Taylor Lobster Co., Kittery I am writing in opposition to the Proposed Rule that would severely impact the Maine lobster industry’s ability to survive. I am a third-generation lobsterman who started my own wholesale lobster distribution business in 2003 in Kittery, Maine. Lobstering has been a way of life for my family since the 1920’s, and my father, who is 71, is still fishing today. My young daughter is already excited to set her own traps and choose her bright, fun buoy color… Our company has grown to employ 35 individuals who buy, grade/sort, and package Maine lobsters for distribution around the world. We operate two retail fish markets, deliver locally to over 200 restaurant accounts, and ship lobsters in bulk to other distributors throughout the US and internationally. We annually purchase nearly two million pounds of Maine lobsters from local lobstermen in southern Maine… The Proposed Rule would decimate the Maine lobster industry and the business that I have built, which helps to support scores of lobstermen, our employees and the expanded network of services we do business with each day.

Brian Tripp, Sedgwick My name is Brian Tripp, I am a full-time lobsterman from Sedgwick, Maine. I fish year-round offshore in Area 1 … As a Maine lobsterman I strive to keep our fishery healthy. I admit doing this for the selfish reasons of providing a future fishery for my two children ages 8 & 11 who are both lobstering part-time hauling their own traps and working with their mother, my wife, who fishes a few hundred traps out of her own 20’ boat in the summer and fall. Yes, that’s right, we are a family of four in which every single one of us has his or her own traps, license and boat. We have never seen a right whale or been so much as given even a warning for a fisheries law violation and generally work hard and keep to ourselves, take care of those in need and do the right thing 365 days a year. In your heart of hearts, you know this is an unfair attack on our way of life. If you don’t, then you are not closely enough involved in our fishery to be making decisions of this magnitude. We are simply not a threat to right whales.

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