New rules announcing that a portion of Maine waters several miles offshore running along the Midcoast will be closed off to vertical-line fishing to help protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale could harm the Maine lobster fishery — and there is little data to suggest the whales are actually present in Maine waters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the announcement Aug. 31 and fishermen have been angry about it since — understandably so. With an estimated 368 right whales left in the world, according to NOAA, conservationists fighting to preserve the animals have good reason to advocate so passionately for the species; the problem is that there has not been a right whale entanglement attributed to Maine fishing lines since the early 2000s.

NOAA says there is not much evidence showing either that the whales do or do not frequent Maine waters — which surely does not justify such drastic measures. The agency’s models suggest that the whales frequent the waters of the proposed closure area, but one has to wonder how accurate those models are when there is so little data on how often the whales enter Maine waters.

Two different groups have done acoustic studies in the proposed closure area that took multiple readings suggesting some whales frequent those waters, but the readings were taken between January and March, whereas the closure would be implemented between October and January. And NOAA staff acknowledge that the studies did not substantially inform their models, but rather help to confirm the validity of the models.

Making this decision without substantial data to back it up exacerbates the already uneasy relationship between fishermen and regulators. Each lobster boat in Maine is a small business run by a resident, not by a large corporation with a high profit margin. The proposed closure would put more strain on an already strained industry.

Canada has integrated areal and underwater acoustic surveys into its regulations to constantly monitor for whales. Rather than closing down large swaths of waters for a prolonged period, this allows fishermen to continue to fish in certain areas that officials know whales frequent unless a whale is detected. NOAA should consider a similar approach.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the whales are congregating in large numbers off Massachusetts, but Maine’s situation is different, and calls for different rules.

It would be better for the federal government to gather data using areal and underwater acoustic surveys in Maine waters before it makes such sweeping regulations. Otherwise, it could be imposing an industry-crippling solution in search of a problem.

 

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