A 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine will be off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January — the year’s most lucrative season — thanks to new federal rules designed to protect endangered whale species.

Federal officials on Tuesday, Aug. 31, released a new set of rules for Maine’s lobster fishery, aimed at reducing the risk to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, which are believed to number fewer than 400 worldwide.

But many industry officials worry that the changes will shift the risk to the lobster fishery that is the backbone of Maine’s fishing industry. And the new rules are unlikely to satisfy either conservation groups pushing for stronger safeguards for whales or Maine political leaders who are fiercely protective of the state’s lobster industry.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan aims to reduce risk to the North Atlantic right whales by at least 60%. The plans released Aug. 31 include: gear modifications to reduce the number of vertical lines by requiring more traps between buoy lines, introducing weak insertions or weak rope into buoy lines so that a rope will break if a whale becomes entangled, modifying existing seasonal restricted areas to allow ropeless fishing, and adding additional, seasonal restricted areas that are closed to buoy lines but allow ropeless fishing.

The latter, which includes a new seasonal closure in a large area about 12 nautical miles off Midcoast Maine known as Lobster Management Area 1, has been one of the most hotly contested of the plan’s changes.

The affected area is more than 950 square miles and stretches roughly from Mount Desert Island down to eastern Casco Bay.

The plan closes the area to fishing from October through January but allows buoyless or “ropeless” fishing — a new and experimental technology that brings lobster traps to the surface from smartphone signals.

Federal officials estimate that this closure will impact about 120 vessels (up from their original estimate of about 45). Half of those most likely catch lobsters in the restricted area, and the other half may be crowded by the boats that move from the restricted area into waters outside that closure, reducing the overall catch rates.

The closure is expected to cost lobstermen between 5% and 10% of their annual revenue each year.

Reacting almost immediately to the announcement, Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation called on state and federal authorities “to do all they can to change” NOAA’s decision.

In a statement issued early Tuesday afternoon, Foundation Executive Director Crystal Canney termed the NOAA plan “incredulous.”

“Maine lobstermen and women are not killing right whales,” she said. “Why would you penalize an iconic Maine industry for the sake of being able to say you are saving right whales? It’s like cutting off an arm when it’s the foot that is the problem and pretending you have fixed the problem.

“This industry is under fire from every direction — right whales and large industrial aquaculture. The whale deaths are not in Maine nor at the hands of Maine lobstermen.

“Instead of saving right whales, what this decision has done is endanger not only the livelihoods of many of our lobstermen and women but also their lives,” Canney said. “More traps on a trawl will make an already dangerous job even more so.”

At mid-afternoon Tuesday, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King, Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden and Maine Gov. Janet Mills issued this statement about the release of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Rule:

“The Maine lobster fishery has repeatedly made significant improvements to their practices and modifications to their gear to protect right whales, including the implementation of weak link mandates in 1997 and again in 2007. Notably, there has not been a single right whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster fisheries in nearly two decades. In recent years, the Delegation and the Mills Administration, including the Maine Department of Marine Resources, have worked closely with the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Maine Lobstering Union, and other stakeholders to ensure that their input was received by NMFS with the goal of regulations that are fair, safe, and reflect the reality in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, the final rule does not meet those standards.

“We agree that we must protect the fragile right whale population, but we must do so without endangering human lives or livelihoods. It is unacceptable that Maine lobstermen and women continue to be the primary target of burdensome regulations despite the multiple effective mitigation measures they have taken and the data showing that ship strikes and Canadian snow crab gear pose substantially greater risks to right whales. We will continue to work with our partners in the lobster industry to support this vital part of Maine’s economy and heritage.”

In an Aug. 21 letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, delegation members urged the Biden administration “to avoid hasty, late-breaking changes” to measures that had been negotiated over several years. Their letter raised particular concerns about the prospects of a seasonal closure to lobster fishing with rope in part of Maine.

“An absolute closed area would be very costly, if not prohibitive, to the business models of numerous fishermen and, in many respects, would seemingly not provide much additional risk reduction” to whales, the delegation wrote. “We strongly believe that fishermen should not lose access to fishing grounds unless whales are present.”

State Rep. Vicki Doudera, D-Camden, who represents Camden, Rockport and Islesboro, issued the following response to the NOAA rule:

“The men and women who fish for lobster in Maine have changed and improved their practices several times and there has not been a single right whale entanglement from the Maine lobster fishery in close to 20 years. Since our current lobstering practices do not appear to be the cause of whale mortality, these new regulations make no sense. To keep making our lobstermen and women the primary focus for unnecessary measures like these is unfair and burdensome and threatens a fishery that is critical and iconic to our state.”

Rep. Jan Dodge, D-Belfast, said, “I was sad to hear of NOAA’s decision and the negative impacts this will have on the industry, our fisherman and Maine’s economy. I’m not sure this action will produce the desired whale protection.”

The rules also call for modifications to gear marking, using state-specific colors for gear marks to better identify where a whale became entangled. Maine already implemented its own marking program over the summer, so its purple designation will stand.

The gear modifications required by the rule will go into effect May 1, 2022, which is the start of the American lobster/Jonah crab fishing year, NOAA said in a press release Aug. 31. The changes to the seasonally restricted areas will go into effect in 30 days.

The total cost of all proposed measures for including gear marking, weak rope, restricted area and gear conversion costs range from $5.9 million to $12.8 million annually, $28 million to $61 million in total, according to a draft impact statement.

In a February letter to NOAA’s regional fisheries director, Gov. Mills expressed “grave concerns” about the agency’s goal of a 98% risk reduction to whales from the fishing industry by 2030. The plan released Aug. 31 is the first phase of that roughly 10-year conservation framework released by NOAA in May.

Since 2017, 34 right whales have been killed, according to NOAA. An earlier estimate of 33 deaths attributed 21 to Canada and 12 to the U.S.

Eleven incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including at least two in U.S. waters, but none can be linked to the Maine lobster industry. The most recent known Maine entanglement occurred in 2004, but the whale survived.

Additionally, since 2017, 16 live whales have been documented with serious injuries from entanglements or vessel strikes. “Serious injuries” means the whale is likely to die from its injuries, though it was alive at last sighting.

With only about 368 of the endangered whales still alive, that reflects a more than 10% decline in their population in under five years. An estimated 85% of right whales show signs of entanglements, according to officials.

Producing about 82% of the country’s lobster, Maine’s lobster fishery is the largest in the United States, but fishermen say they’re not seeing the whales in our waters, despite bearing the brunt of the burden in the new plan.

The NOAA plan does not include measures to help prevent ship strikes or reduce mortality and serious injuries in Canadian waters, which together account for the majority of right whale deaths.

Republican Journal staff contributed to this story.