With the majority of American lobsters caught in Maine, the state's lobster fishermen could bear the brunt of changes in federal fishery regulations to save the endangered right whale.

At the March 1 Fisherman's Forum update on the threat of extinction for the North Atlantic right whale, it became clear regulators believe changes to fishing gear will be announced sometime this year.

Much of the presentation focused on changes to the vertical lines that attach buoys floating on top of the water to the lobster traps down on the ocean floor. The colored buoys identify the owner of the traps and their location, and the line is used to haul the heavy traps out of the water

In 2009, a whale protection regulation required fishermen to eliminate the floating rope they used to connect strings of lobster traps, and replace it with rope that lies on the ocean floor. That process took five years and a rope buyback program to accomplish, according to Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, who was in the audience. Switching out vertical lines cannot be done in one year, she said.

Right whale presentation

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official Mike Asaro explained that most of the remaining 450 North Atlantic right whales are male, with a population of about 100 females.The females are not birthing enough calves to keep the species going, he said. North Atlantic right whales are 70-ton marine mammals that can grow to 52 feet long and live up to 70 years.

Regulatory efforts to save the right whale are focusing on reducing whale deaths caused by collisions with boats and entanglement in fishing gear. Even a small number of deaths from collisons or entangements adds up to a significant percentage of the dwindling population, according to Asaro.

He said when the whales become entangled, they swim away covered with the gear, so it is difficult to pinpoint where entanglements occur. One right whale entangled with Canadian crab-fishing gear was found in Florida, he said. Other entangled whales have died.

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service is responsible for the stewardship of the nation's ocean resources and their habitat, and has been sued by environmental groups seeking more protections for right whales. The North Atlantic right whale is protected under the Endangered Species and Maine Mammal Protection acts.

Toni Kerns of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission explained how coming regulations are percolating through her organization. ASMFC represents 15 Atlantic coast states from Maine to Florida. It was formed in 1942, and has authority over fisheries up to three miles offshore.

An ASMFC board studying the right whale problem will propose reductions in vertical lines by up to 40 percent and developing a method to identify vertical lines until 100 percent harvester reporting is implemented everywhere, Kerns said in her presentation. Tools to achieve vertical line reductions include trap limits, gear configurations, seasonal closures and other measures. She mentioned that vertical line reductions could be different across the seven lobster management conservation areas. ASMFC designates the Gulf of Maine as LCMA 1, including inshore and offshore territory.

The proposals could be approved as early as May, which would begin a public comment period that would last until July. The proposals could be finalized in August. An implementation schedule is to be determined.

ASMFC's position is that it is important to ensure that implementaton of right whale conservation measures take place, to the extent possible, in a way that maintains the viability of the lobster fishery.

Caitlin Cleaver, a marine biologist with FB Environmental in Portland and Portsmouth, N.H., is working in partnership with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Maine, Massachusetts and Offshore Lobstermen's Associations, and others to ensure federal-level decision-making on any new regulations is based on a wealth of information about  the types of rope used in lobster fishing, how the rope is used in inshore and offshore fishing and in different configurations, the weight of hauling loads, and the different strengths of rope used. Vertical line breaking strength is also being tested.

Ben Brickett, a business owner, presented a line-cutting tool that attaches to vertical line, and can go around a hauler without endangering fishermen. He said that if manufactured the device would cost about the same as a new 42-inch lobster trap.

McCarron said a new, easier-to-break rope being talked about, called 1700-pound rope, does not even exist yet. Even if this rope were safe for fishermen to use, if whales could break free from it, and if it gets made and distributed, switching out the vertical lines would be a "huge undertaking," she said.

She talked about looking at what fishermen could do right away with existing gear, instead, including "using small-diameter ropes, looking at weakening our ropes through knots or splices, or use a weaker rope just on top, rather than the whole line." These examples could help a whale break free, "in the rare chance that a whale encounters Maine lobster gear," she said.

Fishermen comment

Eben Wilson and Addison Ames were the only fishermen who had a chance to speak during an eight-minute comment period at the end of the hour-and-a-half presentaton. Both said lobster-fishing gear was not the problem, and that changing rope would hurt fishermen and wouldn't help the whales.

Wilson of South Bristol said female northern right whales are not reproducing because they can't get enough food, due to ocean warming and the decline of copepods, a type of plankton. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than other ocean locations, and the right whales are moving from the Bay of Fundy to Canadian waters. "They're moving to where their food is," he said.

He thinks that changing the ropes that attach lobster traps to buoys so they break if whales get entangled in them is going to hurt the fishery, and there will still be problems with the whales. "We're going to wind up losing the fishery, and you're going to lose the whales as well."

Wilson said environmental changes in the Gulf of Maine have to be accounted for in the Endangered Species Act. "This is the elephant in the room," he said.

"Death by rope, death by ship, or death by starvation. I wonder which one it's gonna be, said Ames, a lobster fisherman from Vinalhaven. "My mind keeps coming back to starvation," he said. Ames sees changes in the Gulf of Maine as the biggest threat to right whales. Those changes include ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide. He said he watches a lot of public television, and "there's pretty good science on that."

"You take all the ropes out of the water, and put the ships in dry dock, but if the new theory is wrong, then it won't make a difference," he said.

Right whale sightings

Fishermen at the meeting, McCarron and Asaro of NOAA agreed that right whale sightings in the local lobster-fishing area are rare.

According to NOAA right whale sighting tracking, since 2004, one right whale was sighted near the island of Matinicus in August 2012 and another was sighted some distance off Port Clyde in September 2018.

Because whales swim continuously, exact locations are obsolete within minutes of a sighting, according to NOAA, and a lack of data about sitings does not mean right whales were not present. The NOAA website states that the majority of the North Atlantic right whale population lives along the U.S. eastern seaboard for much of the year, while efforts to find them are typically limited to seasonal whale watches or researchers dedicated to locating seasonal habitats.

Lobster landings

In 2018, Maine fishermen brought in nearly 120 million pounds of lobster, valued at $485 million, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Lobster represents 43 percent of the 280 million pounds of all species of seafood harvested in Maine in 2018, and 76 percent of the $637 million.value of the seafood harvested.

In  2017, Maine led the nation, with 83 percent of all American lobster landings, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Maine fishermen caught 108 million pounds of lobster, with a value of $423 million. Total American lobster landings were 133 million pounds valued at $552.1 million.

Of the 133 million pounds of lobster harvested in 2017, 82,668,000 pounds were hauled three miles or less from shore, and 50,305,000 from three to 200 miles from shore. NOAA does not regulate fisheries within three miles of the shore.