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News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, February 25, 2021
Whale rule proposals bring fear and anxiety
Fishermen, residents urged to write to NOAA

by Leslie Landrigan

A broad and sweeping federal proposal to save right whales from extinction could wipe out tens of thousands of jobs tied to the lobster fishery within a decade, according to state officials and fishermen’s advocates.

Not only that, the proposal won’t even save the whales, they say.

Under a judge’s order, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, on December 31, 2020, proposed new rules to protect right whales from fishing gear. Two weeks later, NOAA published a draft opinion, also ordered by the judge, on the impact of the rules. Known as a biological opinion, it outlines a 10-year plan to reduce 98 percent of the lobster fishery’s risk to whales.

Gov. Janet Mills called the biological opinion “devastating” in a February 18 letter to NOAA. “If this comes to pass, it is not only fishermen and their crew who will be impacted, [but] gear suppliers, trap builders, rope manufacturers—all these businesses face a deeply uncertain future,” Mills wrote.

Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Kelliher offered a blunter assessment during a virtual Lobster Advisory Council meeting on February 17.

“It was like getting a hit in the gut,” Kelliher said.

Now, Stonington Town Manager Kathleen Billings and state Rep. Genevieve McDonald are urging fishermen and local residents to submit comments to NOAA about the rule.

“I hope every fisherman in this community takes the time to submit a public comment,” McDonald said in an email.

There isn’t much time.

People only have until March 1 to comment on the proposed rules. The final rules and biological opinion are due on May 31, 2021, the deadline set by the judge.

Saving the whales

McDonald called it “appalling” that NOAA wants to place the burden of saving the whales on Maine’s lobster fishermen. “There is limited correlation between these developing rules and actual remedy or relief for right whales,” she said.

There are fewer than 400 Atlantic right whales, which have been listed as endangered since 1970, according to NOAA.

Lobster fishermen have already changed their gear to protect right whales. They removed 27,000 miles of floating groundline by 2009 and 2,540 of vertical lines by 2014, according to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. Whale entanglements fell by 90 percent since 1990 as a result, the MLA says. The last confirmed entanglement in Maine lobster gear happened in 2004, and that whale is alive and healthy today, according to the MLA.

Even NOAA says its proposed rules for the lobster fishery will do little to help the right whale over the next 50 years, wrote Kelliher in a February 18 letter to the agency.

The reason is that whales are getting killed by vessel strikes and lobster fishing gear in Canadian waters, according to the biological opinion.

Kelliher noted in his letter that regulators have done nothing to reduce vessel strikes in the U.S. He also pointed out that NOAA delayed using one of its few tools to influence the Canadian fishery: the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s Fish and Fish Product Import Provisions. Those provisions require foreign fisheries to have comparable protections to the U.S. in order to be able to export seafood to the U.S.“Further delay of this rule would be highly inappropriate,” Kelliher told NOAA.

Nasty shock

Fishermen had expected many elements of the NOAA proposal, including limits on the number of traps on a trawl, weak points in fishing lines and gear marking. But they didn’t expect NOAA to propose closing a swath of federal water off Maine from October to January, the season when the right whales migrate.

NOAA estimates the closure would impact 45 fishing vessels. Kelliher said he thought that was low. “I think they’re way off on that,” he told the Lobster Advisory Council.

NOAA’s call for reducing risk by 98 percent also came as a surprise, said Kelliher. The only way to do it, he said, is to convert to ropeless fishing. The technology is expensive and unproven, and questions about enforcement have not been answered.

“The idea that the agency is even going to consider ropeless fishing at this time is a very bad precedent,” Kelliher told the Lobster Advisory Council.

Stonington officials expressed apprehension about NOAA’s proposal during the February 15 select board meeting.

“It’s going to be pretty concerning for Stonington and not a good place we want to be,” Billings said.

Selectman Travis Fifield, who runs the Fifield Lobster dealership, said he’s seeing a lot of fear and anxiety. Selectman John Robbins said he is, too. “I’ve seen a lot of bigger boats for sale,” he said.

How to comment on proposed whale rules
Written comments (due March 1) must be submitted online at
ID #: NOAA-NMFS-2020-0031.