Maine lobster industry wins reprieve but environmentalists say whales will die
PORTLAND, Maine — Lobsterman Curt Brown had already logged a full day on the water by the time he pulled up to a fishing wharf just blocks from downtown Portland restaurants bustling with lunchtime diners.
The 250 to 300 pounds of lobster he had hauled up from the cold Maine waters could land on a plate just up the street – or in a restaurant on the other side of the globe. And on this chilly December day, Brown was feeling more hopeful about the prospects for Maine's iconic lobster industry.
"I think our industry, for the first time in a long time, can see a ray of sunshine and feel optimistic that the hard work we have been doing is being recognized," Brown said.
Just a day earlier, the lobster industry had received welcome news in the fishery's years-long battle with environmental groups over protections for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The state's congressional delegation – which has locked arms with Maine's billion-dollar lobster industry – had pulled off a procedural end-run by inserting a 6-year delay on new federal fishing regulations into a $1.7 trillion spending bill.
For Maine's 5,000 licensed commercial lobstermen, it meant a reprieve from rules that they warned could destroy their industry – and decimate coastal communities – by forcing them off the water in some areas for months at a time and eliminating the vertical lines of rope connecting a string of traps on the bottom to a buoy on the surface. Those lines can become wrapped around whales' fins or lodged in their mouths. But "ropeless" fishing gear, which relies on technology to allow fishermen to call a trap up to the surface, is still in development and is not available on a wide scale commercially.
"If you take away three months, four months, five months of the ability to go out and harvest lobster, you are not only going to impact harvesters," Brown said. "You are going to impact many, many other businesses as well."
Conservation groups fighting to save the North Atlantic right whale, meanwhile, predicted the delay could put the endangered whale on an irreversible slide toward extinction.
"Is there a chance that we can save the right whale in 2028? Yeah, sure," said Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity. "It maybe was a 50-50 proposition before. Now it's like 95 percent to 5 percent against."
Right whales are in danger
Slow-moving and measuring up to 50 feet long, North Atlantic right whales were hunted nearly to extinction more than a century ago. There are just 340 left in the world and biologists say their biggest threats are collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing rope. The migratory whales' territory stretches the entire Atlantic coastline, from their calving grounds along the Florida and Georgia coast to their foraging grounds off of New England and the Canada.
Groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the Conservation Law Foundation have used the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammals Protection Act to force federal regulators to impose stricter regulations on the fishing industry.
But there has never been a right whale mortality tied to the Maine lobster fishery and no injuries traced back to the industry since 2004.
Environmentalists contend that's because it's often impossible to trace rope wrapped around a whale to a specific fishery. But Maine's political leaders said it is evidence that those involved in the state's lobster fishery are good stewards.
"In the 25 years that I've been privileged to represent Maine in the United States Senate, I have never seen a worse case of regulatory overreach to address a problem and blame an industry that is not at all responsible for a problem," said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican.
The lobster industry was the second-largest fishery in the United States in 2019 in terms of economic value, according to the most recent federal data. Maine lobstermen hauled in more than 100 million pounds of the crustaceans in 2021 valued at more than $725 million.
Politicians support the lobster industry
Maine's Democratic, Republican and independent political leaders have united behind an industry that contributes more than $1.5 billion to the state's economy when factoring in jobs within the fishing industry, restaurant or food sales and lobster-related tourism. In addition to delaying any new regulations, the budget bill passed by Congress contains millions of dollars to research how often right whales are entering prime lobstering grounds in the Gulf of Maine and to speed up development of ropeless lobster gear.
"It merely pauses that economic death sentence until we have time to know how to navigate the solution and what the real definition of the problem is," said Sen. Angus King, an independent.
But Erica Fuller, senior attorney with the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, said after the delay was announced that members of Congress who voted for it had "the blood of a magnificent endangered species on their hands.
"The science is clear: Humans are killing right whales faster than they can reproduce, and entanglement in lobster gear is a leading cause," Fuller said.
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists entanglement in fishing gear as a primary cause of mortality and injury among right whales, there has never been a death traced back to the Maine lobster industry and only one documented injury from lobster gear since 2004.
But conservationists and scientists point out that injuries and deaths often can't be traced to any particular fishery.
According to NOAA statistics, of the 34 North Atlantic right whales known to have died between 2017 and 2022, nine were attributed to entanglements in fishing gear, 11 to collisions with ships and 14 were of unknown origin.
Back on the Portland waterfront, lobsterman Curt Brown contends that his industry has done more to protect whales by switching to break-away rope, sinking rope and more traps per line. Brown, who is also a marine biologist for a lobster retailer, added that he's never seen a right whale during his 30 years of lobstering.
"We are the largest fixed-gear fishery on the East Coast," Brown said. "If we were entangling right whales, we would know. Someone would be seeing it and it would be documented. And we're just not seeing it."