Local lobstermen say new restrictions from the federal government will harm their industry while failing to advance regulators’ goal to save right whales from extinction.
The new rules require lobstermen to use more traps per trawl, which will reduce the number of buoy lines in the water; to insert “weak links” in their buoy lines, on the theory that a whale could break a link and escape entanglement; and to mark their rope, so regulators can determine the origin of any rope involved in an entanglement.
Perhaps the most concerning rule for the fishery prohibits lobstering altogether in a 967-square-mile area from October through January, unless lobstermen convert to experimental “ropeless” technology.
The area is in federal waters about 30 miles offshore and extends across Lobster Management Zones C, D and E. Most lobstermen work closer to shore and Harpswell is in Zone F, although lobstermen can fish a minority of their traps outside their primary zone.
NOAA Fisheries, an office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued the rules on Aug. 31.
There were about 368 North Atlantic right whales in 2019, according to NOAA Fisheries. Their population has steadily declined since 2010, although 2021 saw 20 calves born — the most since 2013.
Matt Gilley captains the Catherine G. out of Cundy’s Harbor.
“None of us wants to kill a whale,” Gilley said, and regulators acknowledge that they have never attributed a right whale’s death to entanglement in Maine lobster gear.
“We have not positively identified any gear recovered from a dead right whale as Maine lobster gear,” NOAA Fisheries says on its website. Moreover, it has not documented Maine lobster gear on a live right whale since 2004.
“We would do whatever it takes to help them survive, if it actually made sense,” Gilley said.
Since 2017, 13 right whales have died from unknown causes, 11 from ship strikes and nine from entanglements, according to NOAA Fisheries.
Gary Hawkes captains the Family Condition out of Cundy’s Harbor and owns a wharf on the harbor where he buys lobster from about 10 other boats.
“We’re not out there to kill or hurt anything,” Hawkes said. “We’re just there to make a living.”
“Lobster is the most sustainable fishery on the planet — and that’s a fact,” Gilley said.
The Marine Stewardship Council certified Maine lobster as sustainable in 2016, but suspended the certification last year over concerns about the fishery’s impact on right whales.
Lobstermen point to long-standing conservation measures, such as minimum and maximum size limits, trap limits and tail-notching of egg-bearing females, as proof of their commitment to sustainability.
Gilley and Hawkes speculate that the government may have an ulterior motive for the seasonal closure, like pushing lobstermen out of the area to make room for wind turbines. The state’s preferred site for a research array of up to 12 floating turbines is near the closure area, but a few miles closer to shore.
While few Harpswell lobstermen fish the closure area, Hawkes expects to feel an impact as the lobstermen who do set traps in that area move their gear and create more competition everywhere else.
“It’s the trickle-down effect,” Hawkes said. “Everybody gets affected by this.”
The new regulations allow lobstermen to use “ropeless” lobster traps in the closure area with a special permit, but Gilley views the technology as expensive and unproven.
Gilley also questioned the logic behind changes in gear rules.
“We have to use weaker rope to haul more traps,” he said, which raises risk in an already dangerous profession. If a rope snaps, lobstermen could suffer injury and lose expensive gear.
The changes in gear requirements will also cost money and time. “This is months and months of work,” Gilley said.
Despite the aggravation, cost and risk of the new rules, the most damage to the lobster industry may come from future tightening of the rules. August’s rules aim to reduce risk to the North Atlantic right whale by 60% — but NOAA Fisheries has targeted a 98% reduction over 10 years.
Gilley, 31, has lobstered since the age of 6, when he would haul five traps by hand in a skiff given to him by his father, also a lobsterman. He worries about the future of the industry.
“If it keeps going the way it is, it’s making it virtually impossible,” he said.
A grant from the Broad Reach Foundation supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reporting on the working waterfront.