Maine fishing practices at center of debate about endangered right whale

By Kendra Caruso | Aug 25, 2019
Photo by: Kendra Caruso Buoys hang from a tree in Lincolnville on Aug. 13. Lobsterman Mike Hutchings has been placing them on the tree for over 20 years.

Lincolnville — A tall stump in Lincolnville is covered in lobster buoys; Mike Hutchings began hanging them over 20 years ago. The stump was a healthy tree when he first moved to the property when his son was just a year old.

“It just faded away, like things do, I guess,” Hutchings said.

A painting of the first few buoys on the tree hangs in the barn that doubles as Hutchings' lobster shop. It’s a reminder of his 48 years as a Maine lobsterman.

He started working on a lobster boat when he was 12 and hasn't stopped. He said it paid better than mowing lawns as a kid and offered him a bit of adventure.

Back then, he was hauling between 100 and 150 traps by hand in a skiff, navigating with a compass. The only electronic device he had was a small sounder that determined water depth. People who entered the industry in later years had the luxury of relying on an assortment of devices while fishing, he noted.

“You don’t even need to look out the windows anymore if you don’t want to …. The new fishermen, I call them Betty Crocker fishermen — just add water,” Hutchings said. “But I was that way, too, probably. At one point, that’s what they thought of me, I’m sure.”

But with high-end fishing equipment comes high costs. Add to that a shortage of herring, used as lobster bait, and it's forcing fishermen to pinch pennies. Hutchings said he started fishing later in the season so he could conserve bait and keep costs down.

Bait costs $400 a barrel and he uses three to four barrels per day.

Hutchings thinks the looming regulations to save the right whale, an endangered species, are only part of the problem with the industry. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing the new rules.

He would like to continue fishing lobster for a few more years to be able to say he spent 50 years as a fisherman, but said he feels more financial constraints every year.

“I’d hate to be a young guy starting out,” Hutchings said. “ … It (NOAA) should be more worried about the fishermen becoming extinct.”

Seeking answers for right whales

NOAA's Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team began suggesting cuts to the number of fishing lines lobstermen are allowed to use after meeting with a panel of fishermen and other industry stakeholders from around New England.

NOAA established the Take Reduction Team to monitor and try to reduce whale deaths. It has been gathering input about compromises that fishermen and others are willing to make to save the right whale.

Right whales are considered one of the most critically endangered species, with only about 400 remaining individuals, according to NOAA Protected Species Northeast Branch Chief Sean Hayes.

Until 2010, the species had been steadily rebounding after being nearly over-fished. Since then, right whales have been in decline again, which can be blamed on ship strikes and vertical rope entanglements, according to Hayes.

Deaths from ship strikes have decreased since new speed limits have been established along the whale's major migratory routes. But rope entanglements from fishing lines have increased. About a quarter of the right whale population shows injury signs from entanglements, Hayes said.

Observations have placed more right whales farther north than they were ever known to travel. There have been several new sightings in recent years in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Canada.

It is unknown why they are traveling farther north, but one theory suggests that it might be because the whales' main food source has been moving into Canada as the waters around the Gulf of Maine have begun to warm.

Lack of data drives conflict

The perils of the right whale and the woes of Maine lobstermen are on a collision course. A lack of data about the whales' geographical range makes it hard to get definitive answers about specific locations of entanglements and ship strikes.

It can be difficult to identify where the entangling rope is from because Maine doesn’t require fishermen to use tagged rope.

Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher stated in a public input session in Ellsworth that only one whale death, in 2002, can be definitively linked to Maine fishing lines.

Local fishermen say they have never seen a right whale and that they don’t believe many whale deaths have been caused by Maine fishing gear. One of the most recent observations in Maine was on a Bar Harbor whale-watching boat that recorded a right whale sighting more than two weeks ago.

North of Maine waters, there have been increased numbers of whale deaths in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. There were 12 whale deaths in the area in 2017, according to Marine Mammal Take Reduction Team Coordinator Colleen Coogan.

Canada hasn’t established a comprehensive plan for reducing whale deaths in its waters. It is monitoring a portion of the Saint Lawrence but deaths are still occurring outside that designated area, according to Coogan.

Six right whale deaths were reported in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence during four weeks earlier this summer.

Despite the lack of data, Coogan said her team is urging new regulations because the species already is at a low number and it can’t afford to lose more breeding females — there are 96 left.

 

 

Mike Hutchings, pictured Aug. 13 in his garage where he sells lobster, has been a lobsterman for nearly 50 years and has never seen an endangered right whale while fishing in Maine waters. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Lobsters being weighed on a scale in Mike Hutchings' garage Aug. 13. He's seen the lobster industry change rapidly over his 48 years as a lobsterman. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Price listings hang on signs above lobster tanks in Mike Hutchings' garage Aug. 13. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
An "Open" flag hangs on Mike Hutchings' garage, where he sells lobsters caught on his boat. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Lobsters in tanks for sale in lobsterman Mike Hutchings' garage Aug. 13. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Items Mike Hutchings has collected over his 48 years as a lobsterman decorate a wall of his garage sales room. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
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