The Portland Phoenix

Lobsters v. Whales: Is the future hopeless or ropeless?

lobster traps

Lobster traps at Union Wharf in Portland, Sept. 16, 2022. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

If you’re looking for a resolution to an escalating clash between advocates for right whales and the Maine lobstering industry, your best bet these days could be something called the Ropeless Consortium.

The one-day event, held Oct. 24 at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, seems like one of few arenas these days where fishermen, scientists, regulators, environmentalists and business representatives can get together and find common ground. 

On-demand, also called “ropeless,” systems use far less rope in the water than traditional gear designs. (Image courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

“What everyone is trying to do,” says Michael Moore, a marine veterinarian at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a major proponent of ropeless fishing gear, “is to enable the lobster fishery to survive and the right whale to survive. We have to allow both to prosper.”

At the Ropeless Consortium, those in the industry discussed ropeless gear, an innovative new lobster fishing system that uses acoustic signals to activate a trap on the bottom of the ocean. At the signal, a buoy inflates and carries a line stored on the bottom up to the surface so the lobsterman can haul their trap. 

The new ropeless technology has some in the industry optimistic because it would drastically lessen the odds that it would become entangled with right whales. That’s a start, because everywhere else – like the courts, the waterfront, the research labs and the political sphere — has seen the issue get pretty hopeless.

Lobster fishing and right whales have been coming into increasing conflict in recent years, both in the waters of the North Atlantic and in federal courts of law. Most Maine citizens probably would like to support both the Maine lobster industry and the North Atlantic right whale, but the lobster-whale wars have tended to force people to take sides – lobstermen and politicians on one side, scientists, regulators, conservationists and the courts on the other.

“I would completely agree” that all parties have to allow both species to prosper, says Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. McCarron said there “could be a place” for ropeless technology in certain areas, but doesn’t see lobstermen using it everywhere without a federal mandate requiring them to.

“Maine fishermen really do care deeply about the right whale. They are working hard to do the right thing, but they are worried our fishery will be regulated out of existence.”

An Unusual Mortality Event

The issue came to a head in 2017 with what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls an Unusual Mortality Event. The population of North Atlantic right whales had increased from 270 to almost 500 between 1990 and 2010, but there are now fewer than 350. In 2017, 17 whales died via gear entanglement and ship strikes. Since then, 34 whales have died and 20 have been seriously injured. There have been 91 incidents in all when sublethal entanglements and injuries are counted.

In response to the Unusual Mortality Event, the National Marine Fisheries Administration has called for closing a nearly 1,000-square-mile section of the Gulf of Maine to lobstering between October 18 and January 30, 2023. The closure will affect a rectangle 40 miles from shore that is roughly 10 miles wide and 98 miles long.

Lobstering, of course, is quintessential Maine. There are close to 5,000 licensed lobster fishermen in an industry that last year had revenues of $725 million. Only about 80 boats fish in the closure area, but the heavily regulated lobster industry sees the measure as a threat to its continued existence.

The response from Maine lobster fishers, politicians and bureaucrats has been to plead innocent, insisting that, as Sen. Angus King posted on social media, “There hasn’t been a whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster gear since 2004 and no documented right whale death has ever been attributed to Maine lobster gear.”

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the State of Maine sued the National Marine Fisheries Service over how it made new rules to protect right whales, but the court rejected their arguments, including the argument that there are no documented cases of right whale deaths due to entanglement in Maine lobster gear.

“As attempting to trace the location of mortal entanglements is quintessentially murky water,” wrote Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. in his September 8, 2022 opinion, “the Court declines to displace the expert agency’s judgment.”

Into the Unknown

The MLA has filed an appeal of Boasberg’s decision, which, if it stands, would enforce the seasonal closure. Regulators, environmentalists and lobstermen were close to an agreement to delay implementation of the new restrictions for two years, but that, too, will require the court’s approval. 

One of the arguments the lobstermen make is that of the 34 whales deaths documented in the Unusual Mortality Event, 11 are due to ship strikes and 9 to gear entanglements but 14 deaths are from unknown causes.

McCarron of the MLA complains that unknown deaths are assigned 50/50 to the U.S. and Canada and the American 50 percent is assigned to the Maine lobster fishery.

“Why assign 100 percent [of those right whale deaths] to the lobster fishery?” asks McCarron.

Unless a whale is somehow entangled badly enough to be anchored in place or is tangled in identifiable gear, it is usually impossible to tell where the whale became entangled. Right whales with New England gear wrapped around them have washed up as far away as Florida.

Clearly, whales are getting tangled in fishing gear somewhere. According to a Consortium for Wildlife case study of North Atlantic right whale entanglement in fishing gear, there have been a total of 1,705 entanglements documented between 1980 and 2019 and 83 percent of all right whales bear scars from encounters with fishing gear, whether lobster buoy lines, Canadian crab pot lines or gillnets.

Maine lobstermen believe they are getting a bad rap for entanglements that are mostly due to Canadian crab fishing. But it has been impossible to tell where a whale got entangled until recently. 

In 2020, in hopes of establishing that the Maine lobster fishery is not responsible for whale deaths, Maine lobstermen adopted purple lines to mark their traps. This spring federal regulations went into effect requiring color-coded rope sections by state – purple and green for Maine, yellow for New Hampshire, red for Massachusetts, silver gray for Rhode Island.

So perhaps Maine lobstermen will eventually be able to prove their innocence. Meanwhile, they are being attacked not only in courts of law but also in the court of public opinion. 

In September, Seafood Watch, a sustainability group based at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, placed American lobster on its Red List, urging consumers not to purchase American lobsters because “Data show that entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of injury and death to this endangered species,” meaning the North Atlantic right whale.

In response to Seafood Watch’s red listing of Maine lobsters, Rep. Jared Golden and Sen. Angus King have been seeking to cut federal funding from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

“The Red Listing Monterey Bay Aquarium Act,” said King in a joint press release, “would ensure that Maine people’s hard-earned tax dollars aren’t funding the Aquarium’s pseudoscientific assault on our lobstering communities. It sends a clear message that we will not stand for this outrageous approach to scientific research.”

Last week, Golden called Seafood Watch a “pay-to-play entity,” suggesting that it determines its sustainability lists partly based on donations from industry and corporate restaurant chains.

So far, the Seafood Watch boycott doesn’t appear to be having a major effect.

“We’re continuing to see strong demand and expect that to continue for the foreseeable future,” says Marianne LaCroix, executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative. 

Is the future hopeless or ropeless?

Dr. Moore, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution marine veterinarian and author of “We Are All Whalers,” is on the front lines of whale rescue efforts. But he is not a big fan of seafood boycotts.

“A boycott denies an obvious reality, that lobstering is important to the regional economy,” says Moore. “I believe that development of available on-demand technology, and needed gear conflict avoidance would enable survival of lobstering and right whales.”

Some fishermen call on-demand gear “hopeless,” pointing out that it’s not really ropeless, but fishermen in Maine and Massachusetts are currently testing on-demand gear, which holds the potential to remove millions of vertical lines from the North Atlantic. Boats equipped with ropeless gear will be allowed to set traps in the closure area in the Gulf of Maine.

Cost is one obstacle to the adoption of on-demand gear. On-demand traps can cost $4,000 or more, compared to $100 to $200 for a traditional wire trap with buoy line. But every trap fished does not need to be an on-demand trap, just one trap at the end of a 20-trap trawl.

Traps are located by GPS, but yet to be perfected is a system that will eliminate gear conflict by allowing a lobsterman to know where everyone else’s traps are, the function now performed by colorful lobster buoys.

“There could be a place for it,” says McCarron of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, but she believes that will depend on what federal regulators require. Mandating ropeless traps in some critical areas makes sense, she argues, but all lobstermen should not be required to go ropeless everywhere. 

“We do not need federal universal adoption,” says McCarron. 

And so we wait both for the court’s decision on strict new whale protection measures and on the on-demand gear that might render the gear entanglement debate moot.

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