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Steaming Ahead - March & April 2021

I am forever an optimist, but the issues that Maine lobstermen are facing in 2021 keep me awake at night. The MLA is rallying the troops and organizing our allies as we now face the battle of our generation.

I’ve been in this job for more than 20 years and have first-hand experience of the many significant challenges the lobster industry has faced. Each time, the industry has united and emerged stronger. As a fleet of small businesses, you either adapt or you fail. When your job is your passion and encompasses your heritage and identity, you find a way to survive. That reality has kept Maine lobstermen sharp and adaptable. Combining this survival instinct with our successful stewardship practices has been a recipe for success for many decades.

But this time things are different. Over and over in my mind I think “a 98% risk reduction for the Maine lobster fishery?” I know this fishery inside and out, and I know in my gut that a 98% risk isn’t anything that exists for us. If the Biological Opinion stands as it is, in ten years’ time the Maine lobster fishery as we know it will be erased. Our centuries-old fishing heritage will be gone.

The Maine lobster fishery has evolved to become one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world through a management system and a business model that sustains both the resource and an extraordinary diversity of lobstering businesses. Whether you are a student fishing a small boat or a larger boat fished by a well-established lobsterman or anything in between, there always has been a place for you on the Maine coast.

What will we be able to pass on to the next generation of lobstermen? C. Clark photo.

Those not familiar with the lobster fishery scratch their heads and wonder why Maine is being obstinate in not embracing ropeless fishing. If you work on the water, you know that this is a fairy tale. Regardless of its technical, economic and safety absurdity, ropeless fishing would quickly dismantle the heart and soul of our fishery.

Lobstering is a business. You fish to earn an income to support your family and community. Ropeless fishing requires an outlay of cash and overhead impossible for the majority of lobstermen. If this technology is forced on our fishery, I predict the end of Maine’s owner-operator lobster fishery, massive consolidation of the fleet into the hands of those who have access to capital, and the end of our diverse fleet which provides a stable source of jobs and economic stability in our rural coastal communities.

There will be winners and losers. The winners will be those with deep pockets, and the losers will be the thousands of small operators who lack the resources and sophistication to transition to an expensive high tech fishery. It will not be a fishery that we can pass on to our children and the outlook for Maine’s rural coastal communities is bleak.

Upon reviewing and understanding the implications of the Biological Opinion and the proposed whale rule this winter, I realized that the MLA had one solid chance to get the lobster industry’s position on the record. Because we are responding to rulemaking, these comments become part of the administrative record which serves as the basis of any future legal challenge. What we say and don’t say now dictates our ability to challenge these regulations in the future.

That is why the MLA immediately expanded its whale team by adding an additional top-notch attorney and a policy specialist and hiring a scientist to review the new right whale population model NMFS unveiled in these draft rules.

The MLA is doing everything we can to make sure that our government does not hold Maine lobstermen accountable for right whale deaths that we know are happening somewhere else. It’s just wrong and it will not save the whales. As you can read in this issue, the MLA submitted extensive comments on the draft Biological Opinion on behalf of 12 New England fishing groups addressing the legal and scientific flaws and also submitted extensive comments with recommendations to correct and improve the science and conservation measures in the proposed whale rule.

Being caught in the crosshairs of these management actions is frustrating, unfair, and maddening! We know the facts — 12 right whales died in Canada in 2017 and another ten in 2019. Three right whale babies have been killed by boat strikes in southeast over the last two years. Over the last four years more than one-third of right whale entanglement deaths and injuries occurred due to Canadian fishing gear. The last right whale death or injury linked to U.S. lobster gear occurred in 2002; the last entanglement involving Maine lobster gear was in 2004. Preliminary reports on the recent death of right whale 3920, known as Cottontail, off South Carolina indicate that it was entangled in rope far larger than that fished in the Maine lobster fishery. Another entangled right whale, 3560, sighted in Cape Cod Bay in January, was also reportedly entangled in large diameter rope not fished by Maine lobstermen.

The situation we are in right now is clearly unfair, but we must remember that we will not be allowed to fish unless the Biological Opinion and proposed rule are finalized by May 31. That is the law and we cannot change it. But there is a lot we can do. Step one is to make sure both rules are implemented on time so that we have a fishery, but with enough flexibility so that lobstermen can fish safely and stay in business. Step two is to fix the substandard science and modelling that focus regulatory efforts on Maine lobstermen and not on the activities that are actually killing right whales. One of MLA’s central arguments is that the most draconian measures proposed are unlikely to be effective at saving whales and unnecessary if NMFS adopts corrections proposed in the MLA’s comments. We cannot be successful in this effort without continued strong support for the MLA Legal Defense Fund. I ask all lobstermen, lobstering businesses and anyone who cares about the Maine lobster fishery to support the Legal Defense Fund. Quite literally, the future of the lobster industry is at stake. As always, stay safe on the water.

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