The state’s lobster industry is bracing as federal regulators consider additional requirements they claim are needed to protect the endangered North American right whale, proposals many fear could spell doom for the industry and the coastal communities that it supports.

Squaring off in this battle are national environmental and animal rights organizations versus Maine and its lobster harvesters.

In 2021, the lobster catch statewide was valued at $725 million which was paid to harvesters.

Knox County alone accounted for $202 million of that catch with its landings of 29.1 million pounds. Three of the top six Maine ports, in terms of pounds of lobsters landed, were in Knox County. Stonington topped all ports in Maine with the value of seafood landed there at $73.3 million. Vinalhaven was second at $55.7 million. Friendship came in third at $40.3 million. And Spruce Head was sixth at $31.3 million.

The economic ripple effect of that catch is widespread. To put that $202 million Knox County landings in perspective, total retail sales for Knox County during 2021 totaled $769 million. That includes $151 million in motor vehicle sales for all of 2021.

A 2018 study by Colby College professor of economics Michael Donihue estimated that the economic impact from 167 wholesale distributors, processors, wharfs, pounds, and co-ops licensed lobster dealer along Maine’s coast contributed an estimated $967,675,313 – nearly $1 billion – to the Maine economy and supported more than 5,500 jobs in 2016.

“Maine’s iconic lobster industry is arguably the most visible, and perhaps the most economically important asset for the State,” Donihue stated in his report.

Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association since 2001, filed a statement in August 2022 in the lawsuit brought by the association against the National Marine Fisheries Service over the regulations.

“I fear this will mean the end of Maine’s owner-operator business model which has sustained our rural communities for generations,” McCarron said in his August statement with the court. “There are few lobstermen who have any chance of adapting to the new operating model required to meet these reductions, and the likelihood that they would remain profitable is extremely low. This will result in immense pressure to replace Maine’s owner-operator lobstering system with a heavily consolidated, corporately owned fleet. As observed in fisheries around the world, the result is a few very big winners, with the majority of fishermen forced out of business. This would be a death knell for the Maine lobster industry and our coastal communities.”

The legal war began in January 2018 when the Center for Biological Diversity, the Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of D.C. against the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The environmental and animal rights groups claimed the federal agencies had not done enough to protect the North Atlantic right whale from lobster harvesting.

“The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. The population is in decline and consisted of only around 455 animals as of 2016. Sadly, at least 17 right whales died in 2017 alone, pushing the species even closer to the brink of extinction. Scientists now predict that, if current trends continue, the species could be functionally extinct by 2040,” the groups stated in their lawsuit.

“Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is one of the most significant threats to
the right whale’s survival and recovery, and the primary cause of right whale injuries and deaths
in recent years. From 2010 to 2016, entanglements accounted for 85% of diagnosed right whale
mortalities,” the lawsuit contended.

U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg agreed in a July 8, 2022 ruling in the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia.

“The lives of our vast oceans may appear timeless. Indeed, at the end of Moby Dick, ‘the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.’ Not so, however, for many creatures who live there, including its greatest leviathans. For example, just around 370 North Atlantic right whales remain in existence. For centuries, these whales were imperiled by excessive hunting, but today the greatest human-caused threat comes from entanglement in fishing gear,” Judge Boasberg stated in his ruling.

He said his rulings “at this juncture do not dictate that it must immediately shutter the American lobster fishery; indeed, it is cognizant of what a weighty blow that would inflict,” the justice stated.

Instead, the judge asked for additional briefings as to potential remedies. Those could include further closures of fishing grounds as well as requiring ropeless technology for traps.

The Lobstermen’s Association and state have appealed another ruling by Judge Boasberg to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that sought to stay the federal regulations until more research was done.

The groups that filed the initial lawsuits have asked the judge to order the federal agencies to enact regulations to reduce entanglements by 90 percent within six months. NOAA has asked for two years.

A ruling by Judge Boasberg on that timeline is expected later this year.

In August 2021, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that more than 950 square miles of the Gulf of Maine would be off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January — the area’s most lucrative season — under new federal rules designed to protect an endangered whale species. The federal agency has also required weaker ropes or other changes so that the rope would break loose if a whale were to become entangled.

Maine and the lobster industry have maintained that no right whale has gotten entangled in a Maine lobsterman’s gear for 18 years and no right whale death has ever been attributed to entanglement in a Maine lobsterman’s gear.

Ninety-eight percent of all documented right whale entanglements lack enough gear information to point to a specific fishery and location, stated Brenna Sowder a former right whale research assistant and currently volunteers with the Maine Coalition for North Atlantic Whales stated in a letter to the newspaper.

“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,” Sowder stated.

Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said on Oct. 3, 2022 in response to email questions sent to him that if the the federal court ruling stands and allows the National, Marine Fisheries Service to call for a 90% reduction in risk of entangling whales in lobster gear, it would mean big changes to fixed gear fisheries in Maine.

“It could include trap and/or endline reductions, closures, and additional weak rope. But we are continuing to encourage industry to participate in the scoping process to ensure that input from Maine fishermen is on the record,” Keliher said.

He said it is too early to analyze the cost of ropeless gear because there are still too many unanswered questions such as what technology will actually work and what areas the gear might be required in.

“This technology has a long way to go before it is feasible. Challenges associated with gear conflict and enforcement are a long way from being resolved,” the commissioner said.

Local lobstermen have also voiced their concerns about new regulations and the prospect of harsher rules.

Gerry Cushman said the worst part is not knowing what new regulations will look like to achieve that 90 percent reduction in entanglements.

“They definitely have the potential to be devastating,” Cushman said.

He said the NOAA should share its projected models with the Maine Department of Marine Resources so that it could devise alternatives before the rules are issued.

Dave Taylor of St. George has been lobstering for 30 years. He said the restrictions are ridiculous. He said he has never seen a right whale come up the St. George River and if the federal government were to require ropeless technology he would likely stop lobstering.

He said lobstermen drive the local economy, buying new trucks, rope, buoys, fuel, and engines. He said that if people stop lobstering, it would affect businesses that sell everything from luxury items to clothes and even grocery stores.

“No one is going to buy a new truck if they’ve been put out of business,” Taylor said.

The Maine lobster industry has a reputation for conservation with the resource. There are laws setting a minimum and maximum length for lobsters than can be caught, for instance. There are also limits on the number of traps each harvester can use. In the local lobster management region, the limit is 800. And then there is the v-notch program that protects egg-bearing lobsters.

The four organizations that filed the lawsuit which have led to the threat to the lobster industry are mammoth organizations.

The Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Ariz., had a 2019 budget of $22.4 million which includes $1.7 million for fundraising. Executive Director Kieran Suckling was paid $232,000 in 2019.

The Center states “we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive. We want those who come after us to inherit a world where the wild is still alive.”

The Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington. D.C., had an annual budget in 2019 of nearly $35 million. The expenses included $925,000 for fundraising. The chief executive officer at that time Jamie Rappaport Clark was paid $476,000 that year.

Defenders of Wildlife calls itself a national, non-profit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native wild animals and plants in their natural communities. Defenders of Wildlife states it “envisions a future where diverse wildlife populations in North America are secure and thriving, sustained by a network of healthy lands and waters.”

The Humane Society of the United States had a 2020 budget of $136 million and its chief executive officer Cristoble Block was paid $396,000. The Humane Society paid $6.7 million for fundraising consultants and $6.6 million in advertising.

The Humane Society of the United States states “We fight the big fights to end suffering for all animals. Together with millions of supporters, we take on puppy mills, factory farms, the fur trade, trophy hunting, animal cosmetics testing and other cruel industries. We rescue and care for thousands of animals every year through our Animal Rescue Team’s work and other hands-on animal care services. We fight all forms of animal cruelty to achieve the vision behind our name: a humane society.”

The Conservation Law Foundation, based in Boston, had a 2020 budget of $15.5 million. Its president Bradley Campbell was paid $265,000. The Foundation paid $1.3 million for fundraising.

The Conservation Law Foundation states it “works to solve the most significant environmental challenges facing New England. CLF’s advocates use law, economics and science to create innovative strategies that conserve natural resources, protect public health and promote vital communities in our region.”

The organizations based their lawsuits on federal laws including the Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted by Congress and signed into law in October 1972 by President Richard Nixon in partial response to growing concerns among scientists and the general public that certain species and populations of marine mammals were in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of human activities. The MMPA set forth a national policy to prevent marine mammal species and population stocks from diminishing, as a result of human activities, beyond the point at which they cease to be significant functioning elements of the ecosystems of which they are a part, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Maine’s two U.S. senators — Democrat Edmund Muskie and Republican Margaret Chase Smith — voted for the legislation which has been amended several times since its initial enactment 50 years ago.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch issued an advisory last month placing Maine lobster on its “red list” of foods to avoid because the organization claimed the resource was not sustainable because of its impact on right whales. Maine’s Congressional delegation say they will sponsor legislation to take away federal funding from the group, arguing that its decision was not based on science.

“American lobster caught in Canada (Newfoundland and Labrador LFA) with pots should be avoided. This fishery poses a risk to overfished or at-risk species, including endangered North Atlantic right whales. Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of serious injury and death to North Atlantic right whales. As a result, bycatch management is rated ineffective for all pot and set gillnet fisheries operating within the North Atlantic right whale’s range because current management measures do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the species,” the Seafood Watch states.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation had annual expenses in 2020 of $98 million with 17 of its employees being paid in excess of $150,000. Executive Director Julie Packard was paid $331,876