National Marine Fisheries Service issued new proposed fishing regulations to protect the endangered right whale that the fishing community in Maine fears would increase operating costs beyond what most fishermen can afford.

The proposal, released in late December 2020, includes measures like regional gear marking, breakaway rope, extra traps per trawl line and restrictions on certain fishing areas. But it is the emphasis placed on ropeless fishing traps that has officials at the Maine Department of Marine Resources most concerned.

In its Biological Opinion regarding right whales and the fishing industry, NMFS identifies ropeless fishing as a solution, among others, to reduce whale entanglements that cause death or serious injury. DMR argues that ropeless gear is largely under-researched and unaffordable.

DMR used EdgeTech traps to estimate cost increases associated with converting to ropeless fishing in its Feb. 18 comment. To retrieve the trap, the fisherman uses high-frequency sound waves to remotely release a flotation device that floats the trap to the surface. An EdgeTech fishing unit costs $3,750, according to the comment from the department to NMFS.

DMR estimates that a fisherman fishing with eight traps per trawl line using the full number of traps allowed could spend up to $375,000 to buy into ropeless fishing. Converting the 1,350 federal lobster permit holders in the state to ropeless fishing would cost more than $500 million.

The economic impact would hit Maine hardest because 82% of lobsters fished in the U.S. are from Maine, according to DMR’s comment. Direct and indirect revenues associated with the state’s lobster industry add up to $1.5 billion.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Public Affairs Officer Jennifer Goebel pointed out in an email that on page 7 of NMFS's Draft Conservation Framework, which accompanies the Biological Opinion, the document “specifies targets rather than particular measures to be implemented.” NMFS is not speaking publicly about the regulation changes until after the final draft of the proposed regulations is issued.

Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife and Humane Society of the United States sued NMFS because it did not file an incidental take report for right whales in 2014 as required by the Endangered Species Act.

Last year, a judge sided with the conservation groups and gave the government until this May to issue a new Biological Opinion and measures to decrease whale deaths. The species can sustain less than one whale death a year because of fishing practices, according to NMFS calculations. It was found that the industry kills up to three whales per year.

Since 2017 there have been 21 dead whales found in Canada and 13 dead whales found in the United States, according to NOAA's website. NOAA has documented 15 whales with serious injuries since 2017. Researchers argue that it is not only important for whales to survive, but serious injuries and environmental stressors also need to be reduced so the population can breed and increase.

U.S. fishermen have been reluctant to embrace new regulations in part because they argue that many whale deaths occur from ship strikes in Canada’s St. Lawrence Bay, and if the Canadian government does not take action to protect the species, any effort the U.S. government takes will not matter. Maine lobstermen argue that there is little proof the whales frequent Maine waters.

Canada takes action

In 2017, 12 dead right whales were found in the St. Lawrence Bay, according to NOAA's website. The Canadian government had to take swift action to address the deaths by implementing slower vessel speeds for large boats, among other measures, according to Michell Sanders, Transport Canada director of clean water policy.

Before they moved into the St. Lawrence Bay, right whales frequented the Bay of Fundy, but researchers believe the organisms they eat have moved into the St. Lawrence Bay and parts of Massachusetts’ waters, causing the whales to change their migration patterns.

When whales started showing up in the St. Lawrence Bay, Canadian officials looked at the measures the U.S. had implemented, Sanders said. A 10-knot speed limit was applied to vessels over 65 feet.

Current regulations apply a 10-knot speed limit throughout most of the St. Lawrence Bay for vessels over 42 feet. If a whale is seen in the bay’s dynamic shipping zone in lanes north and south of Anticosti Island, a 15-day 10-knot speed limit is applied to vessels traveling through those lanes. Whales are usually detected through acoustic gliders, aerial surveillance and hydrophones on oceanographic buoys.

Where whales are detected in areas of the St. Lawrence Bay, those areas will be closed to non-tended fixed gear fishers, which are primarily lobster and crab fishermen, for 15 days. If another whale is spotted during days nine through 15 of the area’s closed period, another 15-day closure will be implemented.

The government also introduced a restricted area in the Shediac Valley while whales are gathering in large numbers during late spring and early summer. It essentially closes the area to large vessels, but there are some exemptions. All measures implemented cover more than 65,000 kilometers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In 2017, an advisory working group was established comprising marine stakeholders in the transportation sector, scientists, fishermen and environmental groups. Transport Canada maintains communication with stakeholders, who give the department feedback about how measures are affecting their operations. “Nobody wants to show up at a port with a whale on its bow,” Sanders said. “That’s not something anybody wants to do.”

There were no right whale deaths found in Canadian waters in 2020, Sanders said. The fact that whales get killed in Canada is one argument used by U.S. fishermen who are against strict regulations in U.S. waters, but Sanders said neither country should blame the other, but rather work together to solve the problem.

“I don’t think pointing a finger is really what’s necessarily going to help us here,” she said. “We collaborate closely with our U.S. partners to make sure that we have strong measures on both sides of the borders, to ensure the survival and recovery of the species.”

Canadian officials meet with U.S. officials on a quarterly basis to share research and best practices, she said. The two governments collaborate on surveillance efforts in the summer. NOAA air surveillance often travels into Canadian air space to monitor the whales during summer.

“We recognize that it’s not a species either one of us can claim, and so we work together. There’s a lot of ongoing discussion about how we can learn from each other, learn from the things we’ve put in place and to continue to improve and to use that information to help improve and inform measures going forward,” Sanders said.

Maine’s federal legislators, governor weigh in

Maine’s congressional delegation and Gov. Mills have sent letters to federal officials highlighting the concerns of fishermen and DMR. U.S. Reps. Jared Golden, D-2nd Dist., and Chellie Pingree, D-1st Dist., along with Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King, wrote Feb. 24 to President Biden calling on him to take action to protect the livelihood of lobstermen.

The letter states that there is little evidence to support the claim that Maine’s lobster industry presents a risk to right whales significant enough to implement such “drastic measures.” It calls upon Biden to keep promises he made on the campaign trail to protect the fishermen’s livelihood. Efforts to reach the White House for a comment regarding the legislators' request were unsuccessful as of press time.

Mills, who has been largely silent on the issue, wrote a letter Feb. 19 to NOAA Greater Atlantic Region Regional Administrator Michael Pentony expressing “grave concern” about the possible impacts of the Biological Opinion and the Conservation Framework on coastal communities’ character and economies. She said the framework would require the Maine lobster fishery to be completely reinvented.

“The survival of Maine’s iconic lobster fishery, and in fact, our heritage, through the future of Maine’s independent lobstermen and women, depend on your willingness to act,” she said.