ELLSWORTH — A critically endangered North Atlantic right whale was spotted Sept. 21 off Nantucket near death and wrapped in fishing rope. Meanwhile, Maine lobstermen describe their own stranglehold — one that threatens to choke the industry even though their gear has not been documented in this or any right whale entanglement since 2004.

Snow Cone’s fate is all but sealed, according to scientists at the New England Aquarium. The entangled whale once featured in the documentary “The Last of the Right Whales” is in visibly poor condition, unable to dive and “suffering,” according to Research Assistant Sharon Hsu. “There is no longer hope for her survival.” As with most entanglements (and most right whales have been entangled at some point), the origin of the fishing gear is unknown.

Maine lobstermen worry that their fate is also sealed. Dozens gathered Tuesday evening in the Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School cafeteria for a livestream of a NOAA Fisheries scoping session on modifications to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. Hundreds more participated online. Spurred by a recent court ruling, federal regulators are fast tracking plans to achieve a 90 percent reduction in entanglement risk.

“These are measures that are going to really hurt and there were measures that were put forth that look really bad that didn’t come close to 90 percent, so I want people to realize that this is real, that this is coming and it’s not going to be pretty,” said Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and an Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team member.

He echoed Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher in blasting the timeline for public input on changes to the plan and the single, virtual scoping session.

“Let me be very clear, this opportunity is insufficient, poorly-timed and fails to achieve the core purpose of scoping on such an action,” Keliher said, adding that the eventual rulemaking is likely to be devastating to many Maine communities.

The DMR commissioner noted that Tuesday’s session took place at the same time as a New England Fishery Management Council meeting where a scallop action relevant to Maine fisheries was on the agenda. He also questioned how input gathered during the scoping period could inform the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team’s discussions when that body has already started meeting to draft recommendations.

“This feels like a box-checking exercise and not a real attempt to solicit input on plan modifications,” Keliher said, asking NOAA to extend the scoping period and regulatory timeline.

He added that NOAA had denied access to a decision support tool used to calculate risk reduction until the day prior to the meeting. That prevented stakeholders from being able to thoroughly assess that tool and give detailed feedback, Keliher said.

Colleen Coogan of NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office said the Marine Mammal Protection Act mandates that risk to whales be reduced below the number of deaths that the population can sustain per year. With an estimated fewer than 350 whales remaining, even one death is too many.

An image taken Sept. 22 by a New England Aquarium aerial team approximately 15 nautical miles south of Nantucket shows female North Atlantic right whale “Snow Cone” entangled in fishing gear of undetermined origin. Scientists said the animal’s death was “all but certain” given her condition. New England Aquarium

Rules implemented in 2021 reduced the calculated risk posed by the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fisheries by 46 percent, Coogan said. Now it’s time to find the other 44 percent.

The agency is “about two years out before a final rule is published,” she said.

Fishermen speaking Tuesday called a 90 percent reduction unfeasible and unwarranted. They demanded more data tracking whale movements and hard evidence linking their gear to mortalities and serious injuries.

“We are already guilty, and we haven’t even had the trial,” said Stonington lobsterman Virginia Olsen. She said the state’s leading port was looking at a 10 percent reduction in its fleet as worried fishermen are “selling out.”

Swan’s Island fisherman Jason Joyce and others asked regulators to assess the effectiveness of a weak link with a breaking strength of 600 pounds attached to buoys at the surface. Many lobstermen have already invested in the change and thought they should get credit for the effort.

In his comments, Gib Brogan of environmental group Oceana said “we’re long past the time of theoretical measures” and that NOAA must act to take proven conservation measures dynamic enough to adapt to real-time conditions. He called for reducing vertical lines, tracking all fishing vessels and incentives to transition fishermen to on-demand or ropeless gear.

Zack Klyver of Blue Planet Strategies said he has been testing ropeless gear with fishermen and the results have been promising. He said 100 percent satellite internet capability for the fleet would be critical.

His comments were ill received in Ellsworth.

“When I type ‘ropeless’ into my phone, it comes up ‘hopeless,’” Stonington fisherman Brian Tripp said as he listened to Tuesday night’s scoping session with his two children.

In his public comments, Tripp said closures also don’t work as a management technique because they prompt fishermen to relocate their gear as close to the line as possible, creating “a curtain.”

“You have to give us this opportunity to speak but I don’t think it’s genuine, I don’t feel like we’re actually being listened to because none of what we say ever gets used but you don’t have to come to Maine and see us face to face,” he said.

“We’re real people with real families with real problems and all you’re doing is just piling more onto us to the point of being ridiculous. It’s impossible now to succeed. I kept jumping through hoops. I’ve jumped through every hoop you’ve given me. But you’re making it ridiculous. The hoop — I can’t even fit through it right now.”

“I’m scared to imagine the future for Maine,” said Winter Harbor fisherman Jacob Knowles.

Deer Isle captain Julie Eaton said that if the lobster fishing industry fails, so too will small island communities like her own.

“Because the parents will be forced to leave, the children will leave and the schools will close,” she said.

“What Maine is doing is working,” she added. “We have a sustainable industry.”

Written comments on modifications to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan are being accepted until Oct. 11. They may be submitted via Regulations.gov using docket number NOAA-NMFS-2022-0091.

This article was originally published in The Ellsworth American.