Sam Patten’s op-ed, “It’s now or never for Maine’s lobster industry,” appeals to a widely held belief that the lobster fishery is being unfairly targeted by regulations to protect endangered right whales. We want the fishery’s record of sustainable resource management and past regulatory cooperation to serve as proof that no harm is being done to whales. However, the inconvenient truth remains: fixed fishing gear continues to pose an entanglement risk to right whales, and in order to help prevent their extinction, changes to fishing practices are critically necessary.

The narrative on this hot-button issue in Maine is that you are either on the side of the fishermen or the whales. This is a false choice. There are solutions available to prevent these accidental whale entanglements, and no fishermen wants to harm whales. What’s stopping us from advocating for both? Entanglement prevention is about addressing the risk posed by rope in the water; it is not an attack on fishermen or their livelihood.

Claiming that regulatory change will spell an end to the lobster fishery is inflammatory fearmongering. At its core, this claim undervalues the ingenuity and adaptability of a fishery that has survived for generations, and has seen record-breaking revenues in recent years. Instead of spending money on legal battles and marketing campaigns, Maine leadership could be investing in solutions that make it possible for fishermen and whales to safely co-exist. Innovation in fishing practices, like the use of on-demand “ropeless” gear to eliminate buoy lines, offers a path through regulatory challenges. Where will the fight against regulations lead the fishery?

At the heart of Mr. Patten’s op-ed is a claim that has been repeated hundreds of times: no right whale has been entangled in Maine fishing gear since 2004, and none have ever been killed by Maine fishing gear. This statement is a misrepresentation of what is known about entanglements.

Ninety-eight percent of all documented right whale entanglements lack enough gear information to point to a specific fishery and location. That leaves nearly 1,700 documented right whale entanglements that cannot be attributed to either a fishery or location, and often both. The claim made about “no Maine entanglements” depends on missing data to appear true.

However, it defies logic to claim that the U.S. lobster fishery, which has the highest level of fishing activity and overlaps with right whale distribution, does not bear some responsibility for these unattributed right whale entanglements.

Why are there so many entanglements without conclusive evidence about where they occurred? One reason is that state-specific fishing gear marking — for Maine, this is purple gear marks — was only required in our state starting in 2020. Before then, gear marking was done for all of New England using red gear marks. There are documented right whale entanglements in the last 20 years confirmed to be from trap fisheries with red gear marks, but most of those incidents cannot be attributed to a more specific location.

Mr. Patten also references a mother right whale, Snow Cone, who was sighted on Sept. 23 entangled south of Nantucket. Patten makes the dangerous allegation that news coverage of this whale’s life-threatening entanglement is merely a stunt to drum up sympathy. This whale represents the suffering the entire species endures. More than 86% of right whales have scars from at least one entanglement, and some have been entangled as many as eight times. The public deserves to know Snow Cone’s story in order to understand what’s at stake.

Snow Cone is now entangled in fishing gear from two separate incidents, despite efforts to remove the first set of gear. We don’t yet know the origin of her entanglements. In addition to being entangled for at least 18 months, she has lost two calves in the last two years. Her first calf was killed by a boat and her second calf, born while Snow Cone was entangled, has not been seen since April. One theory is that her compromised health did not support nursing her baby, but it’s likely we’ll never know the cause of the calf’s disappearance. Snow Cone has been entangled at least five times over her lifetime. She is the fifth right whale observed entangled with gear attached this year.

This whale is in an advanced stage of exhaustion and failing health. Scientists believe she has nearly zero percent chance of survival, even if efforts to remove the rope were successful. Whale disentanglement is an emergency measure that is dangerous, and not always successful, even with highly trained responders who do this with unfortunate regularity.

The last right whale confirmed to be entangled in Maine fishing gear in 2004, named Kingfisher, was partially disentangled. However, despite those efforts, multiple wraps of rope remained embedded in his flipper for more than a decade. He has not been seen in years and is presumed dead by scientists.

There are an estimated 336 North Atlantic right whales remaining, and fewer than 80 reproductive females. Snow Cone’s impending death is not only tragic on an individual level; it also means there will soon be one less female to help bring this species back from the brink. Since 2010, it is estimated that at least 67 right whale deaths and serious injuries are due to entanglement in U.S. fishing gear.

There is no denying that regulatory change will have an impact on the lobster and other fixed gear fisheries. We can choose a side and we can rail against change. Or, we can demand funding, training and support for fisheries innovation, and invest in a fishery that is safer for whales. By doing so, we are helping to prevent extinction, and securing a more sustainable and resilient fishery.

Brenna Sowder

Rockport

Brenna Sowder is a writer and nonprofit communications professional. She previously worked as a right whale research assistant, during which time she was involved in several disentanglement efforts. She is also the daughter of a leading right whale scientist who has studied the species for 40 years. Brenna currently volunteers with the Maine Coalition for North Atlantic Right Whales.