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Steaming Ahead - December 2021

I cannot believe it is December already — what a year it’s been! In some ways, I feel like the Maine lobster industry has been run over by a truck and then kicked in the gut over and over again.

Certainly being put under a 10-year whale plan with its 98% risk reduction — and a massive offshore closure as just a small piece of part one of the plan — has left many of us feeling beat up.

Yet I believe that the Maine lobster industry has doubled down on its resolve to take on this seemingly unwinnable fight. When you are faced with losing your livelihood and your heritage, you really have no choice but to fight.

I will admit that the enormity of these issues and what they mean for the future of the lobster industry often feel overwhelming. But I am truly convinced that the Maine lobster industry will prove stronger than these threats.Just a few years ago what we are now facing would have seemed inconceivable. We have a federal whale conservation plan that does not protect whales and, I believe, will eliminate our lobster fishery within a decade. The federal whale rules have been in place for nearly 25 years; lobstermen have grumbled but adapted to its restrictions. Now for the first time the government has set a quantifiable risk reduction target that we must meet — 98% — and a certain time to get there — by 2030. Based on the court’s recent ruling, if the lobster industry does not meet this goal and timeline, it will be illegal for NMFS to continue to permit the fishery.

I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit trying to figure out how we can meet this goal and continue to fish. Our toolbox is painfully empty. Here’s what I do know.

Based on the final rule, in the first phase of the 10-year plan the northeast lobster fishery is required to reduce risk to right whales by 60%. To get there, we earned 6.5% risk reduction for closing 1,000 square miles of Maine’s prime winter fishing bottom for one-third of the year, 5.9% for our latest trawling up requirements, and 7% for new weak rope inserts including those in Maine’ exempt waters. Altogether, that adds up to less than 20%. The remaining 40+% of the current risk reduction comes from the two closures in Massachusetts (46%) and trap reductions in Area 3 and Area 2 (2.5%). Under the 10-year plan, NMFS has us scheduled for another 60% risk reduction in 2025, and up to an 87% risk reduction in 2030. It’s hard to wrap your head around that!

Then in November I learned that NMFS wants to move the goal post. The current 98% risk reduction target in the 10-year plan is based on eliminating observed right whale deaths. That means that a right whale carcass has been seen; measures must be taken so that another death does not occur in the future. However, now the right whale population estimate is based on a computer model rather than the number of right whale carcasses counted each year. Scientists have devised a way to quantify the number of whales that they believe actually die each year, which includes both those seen and those that are never seen.

Using this methodology, NMFS argues that the risk reduction target in the first phase of the 10-year plan should have been closer to 90%, rather than the 60% we achieved through closures, weak points, and trawling up.

My response? “You’ve got to be kidding!” None of this makes sense. It does not pass the straight face test. It does not properly account for changes in right whale distribution and the rarity of sightings where Maine lobstermen fish. It does not take into account the lack of documented entanglements in Maine lobster gear.

What do you do when you know the government is wrong but your concerns continually fall on deaf ears? In this case, we fight. Fight for accountability from our government. Fight for the use of state-of-the-art science. Fight for whale conservation measures that will help right whales without eliminating the Maine lobster fishery.

The Maine lobster industry brings nearly $500 million to the docks each year and supports thousands of jobs in Maine's small coastal towns. It must not be allowed to vanish. MLA photo.

MLA has launched an ambitious fundraising campaign to Save Maine Lobstermen. We will raise $10 million over the next three years. We must have funds in order to remain proactive on all fronts of this battle. We must be able to fund our lawsuit in D.C. District Court seeking accountability from the government on the scientific basis of its 10-year whale plan. We must let the government and the environmental groups know that we are prepared to go head-to-head with them. We will not surrender our livelihoods and our communities due to lack of financial resources.We must particularly remain diligent in the regulatory arena. As we have just seen with risk reduction targets, NMFS will continue to throw one curve ball after another at us, moving the goal posts when they want to. We must be prepared to respond firmly, with legal and scientific ammunition, when they do so. We also must engage with the research and science community to ensure that the whale conservation plan is based on state-of-the-art science and not just what NMFS cobbled together to get a plan out quickly because it was under a court-mandated deadline.

Maine lobstermen consistently land around a half a billion dollars of lobster at the docks each year. Our industry directly supports more than 10,000 jobs on the water, another 5,500 through the dealer network, and hundreds of small businesses depend on the continued success of this fishery.

Ten million dollars may sound like a lot of money, but it is a drop in the bucket when we think about what is on the line for Maine — our fishery, our heritage, our way of life and our children’s future. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has never walked away from a tough situation in its 67-year history. We know where to attack, how to do it, and when. But without substantial financial support, we are as dead in the water as a Holland 45 with a thrown bearing.

I wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And as always, stay safe on the water.


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