The new year could bring about big changes for Maine’s lobster industry. Two lawsuits are scheduled to be heard in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., involving a federal proposal to protect North Atlantic right whales. The outcome could determine when, where and how lobstermen can fish off the state’s coastline. 

“If you take one of the largest-earning industries away from Maine, we’re already in a position where young people continue to move away because there aren’t enough jobs or good paying jobs and if you go ahead and eliminate more of them, you will lose more and more assets in the state,” says Chris Welch, a full-time lobsterman from Kennebunk. 

The 10‐year whale protection plan proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service would close more than 950 square miles of fishing grounds, about 30 miles off Maine's coast, to traditional lobster fishing. 

The proposed regulations also would require lobstermen to make numerous changes to their gear, and to when and where they are allowed to fish based on when right whales are believed to be in the area. 

“In 2010 we were close to 500 individual whales and now the recent tally is 336,” says Amy Knowlton, an expert on right whales and a senior scientist in New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. Knowlton is not involved in the litigation. 

“We started to see a decline in 2010, we also started to see a distribution shift in the whales and as a result of that distribution shift, they became exposed to different kinds of fishing gear…Heavy fishing gear is one of the threats that they face and vessel strikes, especially in Canada,” Knowlton explained. 

Lobster fishing is a major driver of the Maine economy, generating $500 million in economic activity in 2018, according to research published in 2020 by the Maine Journal of Conservation and Sustainability. 

“When you think Maine, you think lobster," Welch says.

The industry is built on the hard work of lobstermen like Welch, who began catching lobster at the age of 14, during boating trips with his maternal grandfather, who left his job as a truck driver to become a commercial lobsterman. The 33-year-old told Spectrum News that the industry has changed a lot since he first got started. He said that he and other lobstermen in the region have adapted along the way and taken numerous steps to ensure that they are environmental stewards of the waterways where they fish. 

“They are coming after an industry that has been very sustainable,” he says.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association filed one of the two lawsuits. It calls the 10‐year whale protection plan “draconian and fundamentally flawed,” and says the proposal would “all but eliminate the Maine lobster fishery yet still fail to save endangered right whales.” A second lawsuit was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity arguing that the proposed protections do not go far enough.

As right whales have become a critically endangered species, efforts to protect them have followed but opponents of the federal plan argue that right whales face a greater threat based on conditions in Canadian waters. 

Welch said that climate change also appears to be responsible for the thinning population of right whales. He added that he is not opposed to conservation efforts to help the whales but said that any recommendations should be based on “real science”.

“It is very easy on paper to say, ‘Well, why can’t these guys protect the whales?’ or ‘Why can’t these guys go without rope or things like that?’ but when the truth of the matter is we’re not harming whales…the statistics and the science are right in front of us that the Maine lobster industry is not responsible for the loss of this species…I’ve actually been testing some rope-less fishing techniques in the last year and it is not as simple as it seems. It actually leads to a more dangerous situation because we are relying on devices to get out traps from the ocean floor to the surface,” Welch said. 

“If we can’t put adequate measures in place in both the U.S. and Canada, then we really stand to lose the (whale) species altogether,” Knowlton responded to critics of the proposed U.S. changes. 

Knowlton acknowledged that climate change is a factor in the decline of the right whale population. 

“Climate change is playing a big role. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than nearly every body of water in the whole world. So, it’s changed their food resources,” said Knowlton. 

But she said the fishing industry is also affecting the whale population. Knowlton told Spectrum News that Canada has made great strides in recent years to mitigate its impact on the species but said that the U.S. also has to do its part. 

“If we can’t put adequate measures in place in both the U.S. and Canada, then we really stand to lose the species altogether,” Knowlton said.

Maine’s Department of Marine Resources successfully petitioned the court to intervene in the case on behalf of the lobstermen to challenge the proposed federal rules. “Maine cares about protecting the endangered right whale, but the Federal government’s regulations must be based in sound science and should account for conservation measures already taken by our fishery,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a press release last week.

“There’s never been a known right whale mortality associated with the Maine lobster fishery, and there have been zero known right whale entanglements associated with Maine lobster gear in almost two decades. Despite these facts and regardless of our lobster industry’s proven commitment to conservation, the National Marine Fisheries Service has pushed forward with regulations that will be devastating to our lobster industry and to our way of life,” Mills said.

Spectrum News reached out to the National Marine Fisheries Service for comment on its plan and the lawsuit. The agency declined to comment.