More data, balanced approach to right whale issue needed

Apr 12, 2018

Before government regulators impose more restrictions on the lobster industry to protect endangered whales, scientists should make a better case for the changes.

Scientists at the Fishermen's Forum in Rockport and in articles being published up and down the east coast have raised the alarm that right whales are on the brink of extinction. We are down to 450 whales and there was a spike in deaths of the whales last year, with 17 dying.

Researchers have discussed the possibility of a ropeless lobster fishery, using technology that doesn't really exist yet, to bring traps to the surface without buoys or lines. Fishermen say this will not work, and we tend to agree. The idea would likely be prohibitively expensive for fishermen and impractical in the field.

Yet the publicity around the need to protect these whales threatens to create a groundswell of public support for stricter regulations and new gear rules. In addition, it could create a public relations problem for the product our local economy depends upon. Consider all of the discussion of "dolphins in the tuna," and you can see the potential to harm the industry at the grocery store checkout and restaurant, as well as in government offices.

Lobster fishermen argue, however, that even if all of the lobster gear had been taken out of the water last year, 17 whales still would have died. Of those, 12 were killed in Canadian waters, some tangled in snow crab gear, and five were killed in the U.S., with none of those deaths linked to the lobster fishery.

This industry has already been working cooperatively with regulators for years to help deal with the problem, including converting to sinking line, which has reduced the incidents of entanglements.

Our local fishermen do not deserve any damage to their reputation. They brought in $434 million in landings in 2017 and the industry accounts for another $1 billion in revenue for the state, according to the Portland Press Herald.

The right whale population has been lower in the past. It dipped at one point to 295 whales in the 1990s and has rebounded to as many as 476. What the future holds for the species is uncertain.

What is clear is that more research is needed to find out exactly how much of an impact this fishery is having on right whales or is likely to have in the future. Strong, clear evidence should be readily available before we damage an industry that supports our entire coastal economy.

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