Maine lobster industry officials told business leaders Thursday that they will continue to fight what they see as unfair and unnecessary federal rules meant to protect endangered right whales.
“We are well over a $2 billion industry to the state primarily operating in communities without other job prospects,” Patrice McCarron, head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said. “It cannot be overstated.”
McCarron’s comments to the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce came just one day after the industry suffered the latest in a series of setbacks.
On Wednesday, the Marine Stewardship Council said it is suspending the Maine lobster fisheries sustainability certificate in mid-December because they don’t think federal laws are strong enough to protect the whales.
That followed an announcement in September that the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch had issued a red rating that directs consumers to avoid eating Maine lobster, also because of concerns about whale protections.
And those actions come amid a federal lawsuit in which Maine lobstermen are challenging federal rules that require them to take additional actions to protect the whales.
Lobsterman Curt Brown, who is also a marine biologist, said the industry has been taking steps to protect the whales since the 1990s, including replacing floating ropes, using weak links so ropes break more easily and removing 30,000 miles of rope from the Gulf of Maine.
In addition, all gear is marked so if there is an entanglement, it can be traced back to the fisherman. Also, 967 square miles of fishing grounds were closed for a period of time to protect the whales.
Brown said he’s spent more than $20,000 over the last 20 years updating his gear to comply with whale protection rules.
No right whale deaths have ever been attributed to Maine lobster gear and the last documented entanglement was in 2004, he said.
“One thing everyone around this issue can agree on is it’s important to protect right whales,” Brown said. “They are majestic creatures. They are amazing. We all need to do our best to protect them. I would argue that there isn’t a group in this country that’s done more to protect right whales than Maine lobstermen and women.”
The newest round of rules, announced in August 2021, are in response to what National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describe as an “unusual mortality event” in which 34 right whales have died since 2017.
There are fewer than 350 right whales left, according to NOAA. They were hunted to the brink of extinction by the early 1890s and have never fully recovered. Fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes are the leading cause of death of the whales today, according to NOAA.
For more than 150 years, the Maine lobster industry has been instituting rules to ensure sustainability of the lobster population for future generations, McCarron said. It’s the oldest commercial fishery in the U.S. and is locally owned and operated.
There is “zero corporate ownership” in the industry, which has 4,800 licensed lobstermen, 1,100 student licenses and 12,000 captains and crew on the water, she said.
Any economic loss will affect hardware stores, coffee shops and other small businesses up and down the coast.
McCarron said she and others are continuing to work with federal officials as they craft new rules that are based on complicated models and data that is not always up to date.
“How can we redesign the lobster fishing business model in a way that will support this incredibly diverse fleet from 20-foot skiffs up to 50-foot boats and everything in between,” she said. “So that everybody still has a place to make a living, that people can continue to live and work in our communities and we can save right whales.”