Maine Lobster and Right Whales

Maine Lobstermen Working to Protect Right Whales

Maine lobstermen have been practicing sustainability measures for over 150 years. This means protecting the health of the lobster stock, and also treating the entire marine environment with respect and care. The industry recognizes the precarious situation of the North Atlantic right whale, and since the 1990s fishermen have been taking proactive steps to ensure the fishery and the whales can co-exist.

The lobster industry is Maine’s economic engine, sustaining not only the men and women who fish but entire communities. Fishermen are willing to make changes to protect whales and have been active participants in the ongoing discussions, but there are legitimate questions about how much Maine’s lobster industry is to blame for the decline in the right whale population. Before regulations are implemented, lobstermen deserve to know that these measures will positively impact right whales and are backed by sound science.

The Maine Lobster industry will continue to be a part of the conversations to ensure the health of the fishery and environment that it operates within.

Maine Lobstermen have led the way in making gear
safe for right whales – but others must follow.

North Atlantic right whales are a species whose limited population is in danger,
and Maine Lobstermen are fully dedicated to ensuring their continued existence.

Making Maine Lobster Gear Safer for Whales

Since the 1990s, Maine Lobstermen have taken proactive steps to protect whales. This includes:

  • Reducing rope
    • Setting more traps on each buoy line to reduce vertical lines in the water
  • Making gear safer for right whales
    • Replacing all floating surface rope and rope between lobster traps with whale-safe sinking line
    • Incorporating weak links allowing whales to more easily break free from gear
    • Hauling all traps at least once per month to reduce gear in the water when it’s not being fished
  • Enhancing traceability
    • Marking rope with a unique color for better traceability of all Maine Lobster gear
  • Innovating new solutions
    • Experimenting with ropes and rigging to find safe solutions to keep both fishermen and whales safe
    • Developing new tools that would cut ropes if encountered by a whale but stay intact to haul gear

Positive Impact

  • 53% increase in the right whale population since new rules were implemented in the Maine Lobster fishery in 1990
  • 90% reduction in known U.S. lobster gear entanglements since enhanced gear safety measures were adopted in 2009
  • 0 right whale deaths or serious injuries have ever been attributed to Maine Lobster gear

What We Know

  • 10 right whale deaths due to ship strikes since 2017
  • 62% of deaths between 2017-2019 have been attributed to entanglement and ship strikes in Canada, and none to Maine
  • 34 right whale calves born in the past three years after a period of low births
  • With food sources shifting, right whales are spending more time in waters outside the U.S., such as the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where far fewer protections are in place

The Ocean Has No Borders

One fishery in isolation cannot save the right whales. Ultimately, we all must contribute to help save these animals.

Shared accountability We need other fisheries and countries to enact effective regulations. In Canada, where right whales now feed and congregate, regulators have not eliminated floating rope and are relying on dynamic closures, where right whales must be detected to implement protections. This is a reactive rather than proactive management approach.
Fairness in data Current evaluations assign 50% of “unknown” deaths and serious injuries to the U.S., a point that simply isn’t backed up by what we know about whale injuries and deaths.
One size does not fit all All areas and fishing gear do not pose the same risk to right whales. Solutions must be scaled to protect right whales where they are in most danger.

“We want to be part of the solution. We are always open and willing to sit down and go over measures that would work for us and for the right whales.”

– Michael Sargent, Maine Lobsterman

Ensuring Effective Solutions

Maine is committed to saving right whales, as well as preserving the livelihood of Maine Lobstermen, and the future of Maine’s coastal communities. We need to find a solution that works for everyone.

Regulations that will hurt the fishery but won’t save the whales aren’t the answer. NOAA’s own data show that even if the Maine Lobster industry disappeared overnight, it wouldn’t be enough to stabilize the right whale population without other industries and countries making changes.

Placing the responsibility of a near total reduction in right whale deaths and serious injuries solely on U.S. fisheries that already have safety measures in place will devastate an industry that supports countless coastal communities in Maine, beyond just the fishermen.

While ropeless fishing is often presented as an easy solution, it is not currently a viable technology for economic, operational and enforcement reasons. Converting the Maine Lobster fleet to ropeless technology would be an extreme measure costing the average fisherman $375k to implement, in a fishery that has a low occurrence of right whales and significant safety measures already in place.

Protecting Right Whales

Committed to Whale Protection

A Longstanding Commitment to Right Whale Safety

  • 1997

    All surface float rope removed

    Weak links implemented

  • 2000

    Began marking vertical lines to identify origin of gear

  • 2009

    Replaced 27,000 miles of floating ground line with whale-safe sinking line

  • 2014

    Removed 2,740 miles of buoy line by establishing minimum traps per buoy line

A Longstanding Commitment to Right Whale Safety

1997

1997

All surface float rope removed

Weak links implemented

2000

2000

Began marking vertical lines to identify origin of gear

2009

2009

Replaced 27,000 miles of floating ground line with whale-safe sinking line

2014

2014

Removed 2,740 miles of buoy line by establishing minimum traps per buoy line

Save Maine Lobstermen

MLA raising $500k to continue legal battle

The Maine Lobster Association (MLA) is the only Maine Lobster industry group actively involved in a federal lawsuit the conservation groups are bringing regarding right whales, but staying in the process as an intervenor is expensive. To that end, the group is looking to raise $500,000 to cover legal costs, so they can have a voice in any potential resolution.

Learn more about the case and contribute to the MLA’s Legal Defense Fund.

In the News

Maine Voices

Read the Maine Legislature’s letter to
Wilbur Ross, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce
and Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator of NOAA Fisheries.

Fishermen’s Perspective

MLA’s Patrice McCarron speaks on whales suit

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is the only industry group representing Maine fishermen in the lawsuit filed by conservation groups accusing the government of not doing enough to protect right whales. Here, the MLA’s Patrice McCarron speaks with the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and breaks down the legal case, the potential impact on the fishery and what’s next.

A few key takeaways:

  • Maine lobstermen have always gone above and beyond state and federal regulations to protect our endangered species.
    Since the first precautions were enacted in 1995, the industry has responded to the increased measures including comprehensive rules set forth in the 2008 revision to the Whales Plan, removing miles of rope from vertical lines from buoys to lobster traps as well as between traps. Maine fishermen have also implemented regulations in the exempt waters closer to shore that were not required by federal regulators.
  • Two lawsuits were initially filed by conservation groups in 2018, although the two were later combined.
    MLA officially intervened that summer, looking to have a voice in the case and any subsequent measures taken if the ruling went against the government.
  • The latest court hearing found the NOAA was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
    The ESA is one of two pieces of legislation (the other being the Marine Mammal Protection Act) that shapes how the government protects whales, and of the two, has the lower burden of proof for the plaintiffs to meet. The ruling is based on technicalities in the National Marine Fishery Service’s biological opinion between permitted fishing activity and the potential impact on right whales and essentially says the government is not doing enough to protect the animals.
  • As we look to what’s next, the industry must stand together during the uncertainty facing our livelihoods.
    The next step is that both sides in the court cases will file briefs looking to inform any final decision by the court on regulations. Meanwhile, the NMFS is working to update its biological opinion on right whales, and industries will share proposed remedies to keep lobster boats on the water. This is a moment for lobsterman to educate the courts on the topic, as well as the importance of Maine lobster on the local economy.

Sustainable Fishing Practices

The Maine Lobster industry has a long history of
protecting the oceans and our fishery.

Maine’s fishery at work

This page is brought to you by the Maine Lobster Industry, a collaboration between:
Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association,
the Maine Lobster Dealers’ Association, and the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative