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Offshore Lobster Industry in Maine Threatening Right Whales

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Maine fishermen caught close to 120 million pounds of lobster in 2018 and more than 100 million every year since 2011. (adamparent/Adobe Stock)
Maine fishermen caught close to 120 million pounds of lobster in 2018 and more than 100 million every year since 2011. (adamparent/Adobe Stock)
May 9, 2019

BAR HARBOR, Maine – While the U.S. lobster industry is booming in Maine, some of its fishing methods are hurting a special group – the North Atlantic right whales.

The whales number slightly more than 400 and are facing extinction.

Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration convened a group of experts, called the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. It made recommendations to the federal government about how to protect the right whales and, in particular, how the New England lobster industry can modify practices to save the whales.

Zack Klyver with Bar Harbor Whale Watch and Blue Planet Strategies, has reviewed data of about 100 whale sightings in Maine. He says the majority of the sightings were about 20 miles off the coast.

"That's where the greatest co-occurrence of risk is for whales and fishing gear, and that, I think, is where there really is need for conservation," Klyver states.

Meanwhile, the offshore lobster industry, which travels further into the water, has grown. According to a number of experts, this has been a deadly mix for the right whales.

Peter Baker, who directs The Pew Charitable Trust's marine conservation work in New England and the Atlantic region of Canada, describes the offshore lobster industry's rise.

"What we've seen over the last 15 years or so is this massive buildup of an offshore lobster fleet,” he points out. “And these guys go farther out in the federal waters. They go out into where the right whale migrates, and they put in much bigger traps. They're much heavier. They're much deeper."

Baker maintains conservation efforts need to focus more on industrial-size offshore fleets and their impact on whales.

Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of the North American office of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, was part of the Take-Reduction Team. She says she was impressed by Maine's commitment to protect the whales.

"Maine, for instance, has said that they will reduce vertical line by 50%,” she points out. “Those vertical lines, those buoy lines that go up to the surface, that appears to be the biggest risk to right whale entanglements. And that's a very big deal."

Asmutis-Silvia hopes there will be a proposed rule by the end of the year and that within the next few years, this rule will significantly reduce the amount of vertical fishing line in the water.

But the recommendations must go through an approval process that could be divisive, particularly from some lobster groups.

Support for this reporting was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Public News Service - ME