The Bombastic Battle That Could Wipe Out Lobster Rolls
In its quest to save an endangered whale, the federal government may crush the lobster industry—or so lobstermen say. Environmentalists claim that’s a stretch.
Up and down the rocky coast of Maine, lobstermen and women are bracing for the biggest threat to their industry in years—which might mean someday your trip to Maine won’t involve lobster served alongside a piping hot ramekin filled with melted butter.
No, it isn’t climate change—although, inarguably, that has played a role—and overfishing isn’t the cause of one of the nation’s oldest industries’ potential demise either. Instead, the highest valued fishery in the U.S. is being threatened by an elusive endangered species and the federal government’s soon-to-be-released plan to protect it.
In order to save the right whale, the federal government is essentially proposing removing vertical fishing lines from the Gulf of Maine by 2030.
The state of Maine, unsurprisingly, argues that this plan goes too far and will eradicate the Maine Lobster Fishery as we know it. In a letter to Michael Pentony, administrator for the Greater Atlantic Region of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, Maine Gov. Janet T. Mills pulled no punches, asking the federal government to fix it and going so far as to claim that “the Survival of Maine’s iconic lobster fishery, and in fact, our heritage, through the future of Maine’s independent lobstermen and women, depend on [the federal government’s] willingness to act.”
On the other side of things, environmentalists assert that if bolder actions than currently proposed are not taken, it will lead to the first extinction event of a large whale species during the Holocene epoch—which covers the last 11,700 years.
The right whale was originally listed as an endangered species in 1973 as a result of centuries of whaling. The name derives from it being the “right” whale to hunt—as they move slowly and float after being killed. Their population had dwindled to a critical level, then bounced back to about 500 in 2010. Currently, NOAA estimates there are roughly 360 right whales remaining.
NOAA lists several factors for the continuing decline of the right whale population. The two largest are vessel strikes—when a large ship hits a whale—and entanglements—when a whale is caught up in fishing gear.
Environmentalists are making progress on the entanglement front. Last spring a federal judge ruled that the US government was failing to protect the right whales and thereby violating the Endangered Species Act. The judge called upon the U.S. government to create a new framework for the protection of these whales.
NOAA will release these rules on May 31, and they will likely take effect this summer. The proposed modifications are intended to achieve “at least a 60 percent reduction in mortalities or serious injuries of right whales” in Northeast fisheries, and currently aim towards a 98 percent risk reduction by the year 2030.
This plan is entirely devoted to limiting the risk of entanglements across all fisheries in New England—vessel strikes are being dealt with separately.
For Richard Howland, a 37-year-old lobsterman from Little Cranberry, Maine, who got his first boat when he was 15 years old and has been fishing for the past 23 years, the situation looks bleak. He told the Daily Beast that “if these regulations pass, by the year 2030 the Maine lobster industry will no longer exist.”
This, Howland explained, is because it would require all lobstermen to adopt ropeless fishing, a technology he describes as “untested,” “unproven,” and even “unsafe.”
“There’s no way to move towards this level of risk reduction without moving towards ropeless fishing,” Howland said. “The problem is it’s too expensive. Who’s going to pay for it? And it’s not going to work either. It might work in a bathtub but not in New England, which is one of the harshest environments to fish in.”
Howland believes that if ropeless fishing is the new mandate the volume of lobster caught will decline, leading to a spike in price. “People will be paying $80 for lobster in Maine,” he said.
Environmentalists disagree that ropeless fishing is infeasible and believe the lobstermen are being resistant to change. Dianna Schulte, the director of research at the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, a nonprofit that aims to protect marine life in the Gulf of Maine, told The Daily Beast “They [lobstermen] say this every time. They cry that they’re going to go out of business because of new regulations and then they don’t.”
On a more empathetic note, Michaela Morris of Environment Maine, an environmental nonprofit, argued that the ropeless fishing technology may be more feasible than the lobster industry believes, telling The Daily Beast that it is being “used by inshore fishermen on the South Shore (of Massachusetts), and they’ve had some success.”
Lobstermen, however, argue that they have made more changes than they often get credit for. While they remain concerned about the ropeless fishing technology, they also fear that they are being unfairly and unjustly demonized, and maintain that there are other, larger, industries that need to be dealt with in addition to theirs.
Instead of severely curtailing the lobster industry, Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA), which currently represents 1,200 members, believes one measurable way to mitigate the mortality of right whales is to see stricter regulations come down on shipping and the Canadian snow crab industry, both of which make up a substantial portion of known whale mortalities in the past few years.
“The whales are in danger and they need help,” McCarron said. “But we have to do our part and manage the risk our fishery has. And right now, we’re being asked to solve everything for everyone. Ironically, we are one of the smaller parts of the problem."
“Making changes to the Maine fishery will hopefully help, but we are not the main driver of extinction,” McCarron added. She also believes that “if we completely shut down our fishery, the population of the right whales would still decline.”
To bolster this claim, McCarron pointed to the data from NOAA’s new draft Biological Opinion, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, citing that from “2016 to 2019, 36% of whale entanglements occurred in Canada, whereas there were 0% documented in Maine.” She also mentioned that there have only been “2 known entanglements of a right whale in lobster gear ever in Maine waters. One in 2002, and one in 2004. Both of those whales were not seriously injured and are still alive to this day.”
While technically true, scientists from the New England Aquarium argue the dataset McCarron is referring to may be misleading and instead suggest that there are more entanglements occurring in Maine waters than reported.
In a recent paper, scientists found that observed carcasses only accounted for 36 percent of all estimated deaths during 1990-2017. They also suggest that there are more entanglements occurring than reported, writing in a letter to Senator Susan Collins that “nearly 85 percent of all surviving North Atlantic right whales carry scars from previous entanglements, and more than half have been entangled multiple times.” They further add that “the number of right whales in Maine waters, the number of entanglements that are occurring in Maine waters, and the severity of all entanglements and their effects upon the right whale population are all significantly underestimated.
Despite this, the lobstermen aren’t the only ones who think the lobster industry is being unfairly punished, either. Some scientists wonder if there is indeed enough data to justify such draconian measures being leveled against the industry.
For example, Dr. Robert Steneck, a professor of oceanography and marine biology at the University of Maine, told The Daily Beast: “Shutting down the Maine lobster fishery, to me, would be like rolling out a vaccine that hasn’t proven to be effective.” Steneck added that “an unintended consequence of the lobster industry potentially being severely curtailed is that there would be a sigh of relief among conservationists that is unwarranted”—suggesting that shuttering the lobster industry and saving the species may not be directly correlated.
The Lobster Institute at the University of Maine also believes other avenues should be explored. In a letter to NOAA on March 1, Dr. Richard Wahle encouraged “the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) to seek ways to minimize the impact of the proposed ruling on the American lobster fishery as it continues to develop data-informed strategies to mitigate sources of whale mortality.”
However, environmentalists argue that in order for the whales to be saved, both problems need to be handled, and quickly. “Vessel strikes and entanglements are two halves of the same story,” Morris said. “We need to address both, and we are working to address both, in order to meet the risk reduction goal of less than one right whale death per year.”
While the New England Aquarium’s study has led environmentalists to call for more risk reduction, faster, in order to save the species—in this case “80 percent”—lobstermen remain confused and unconvinced that the proposed stringent measures will contribute to rescuing the endangered species from the brink.
“I’d do everything to take care of the ocean. It’s my livelihood—and I’m sure any other Maine fisherman would do the same,” Howland told The Daily Beast. “We’re honest men and women trying to make a living.”
However, Morris argues these measures may be a necessary step towards a more sustainable future, telling the Daily Beast, “If we want to forge a culture that prioritizes environmental health, this really starts with standing up for the most vulnerable species, like the right whale.”
The government’s framework comes out on May 31, and it’s more than likely that neither side will be pleased with it.