The bottom line

you could say Maine’s lobster industry has been on a roll. By throwing back breeding lobsters, Maine’s lobstermen have preserved their fishery and actually increased its size, even as other seafood species have been badly depleted by overfishing. But research by marine biologists, many of them from Massachusetts, shows that lobstering gear is killing endangered North Atlantic right whales, and that could put a crimp in the good times for lobstermen Down East.

The National Marine Fisheries Service wants the lobstermen to start using a heavy sinking rope that sits on the ocean floor—out of the swimming range of the whales—to connect their pots, which are typically strung together in groups of five to 15. The lobstermen, who now use floating lines that rest a few feet above the ocean floor, say that just won’t work along Maine’s rocky coast. They believe the heavy rope will get snagged on rocks and break, costing them millions of dollars in lost gear.

Depending on the way you look at it, Massachusetts deserves either a lot of credit—or a lot of blame—for the situation in Maine. State Division of Marine Fisheries Deputy Director Dan McKiernan was the first to hypothesize, back in the 1990s, that right whales were becoming entangled in the lines connecting lobster pots. His thesis gained credence when research by Charles “Stormy” Mayo, the director of right whale habitat studies at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, found that the plankton favored by the whales often packs near the ocean floor. Both men sit on the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, a body established by Congress in 1994 to work to reduce whale entanglement in fishing gear. As a result, they’ve played a leading role in the development of the new regulations.

Many also credit Boston environmental activist Richard Max Strahan with pushing Massachusetts and the federal government to speed up their timetables for regulating fishing gear. In the mid 1990s, he sued the state, the Coast Guard, and the US Department of Commerce (which the National Marine Fisheries Service is part of) on the grounds that they weren’t doing enough to protect the endangered whales from fishing gear, and he got the courts to agree.

The researchers’ findings and Strahan’s litigation didn’t go over well at first. But with the courts examining the issue and the threat of regulation pending, Bay State lobstermen—in contrast to the posture taken so far by their counterparts to the north—decided to compromise. That decision has made them darlings of the environmental movement. “If you look up and down the whole coast, Massachusetts has been the most proactive and been in the forefront in the effort to protect whales,” says Bill Adler, the longtime executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.

Environmentalists point to the Massachusetts case as an example of how the environmental movement and fishermen can work together in a mutually beneficial way. In September 2005, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has led the charge for whale-safe lobstering gear, bestowed its Song of the Whale award on Adler’s colleague, Sandwich lobsterman Gary Ostrom, and on US Sen. Edward Kennedy for their efforts to protect the right whale.

A year before the Washington award dinner honoring the duo, the International Fund had teamed with Ostrom, Adler, Kennedy, US Rep. William Delahunt, and state regulators, including McKiernan, to launch a gear exchange. Some 300 Bay State lobstermen turned in more than 3,000 miles of their floating rope for heavier, whale-safe line. Delahunt and Kennedy had secured more than $650,000 in federal funds for the program. The animal welfare fund contributed $350,000, and lobstermen put up the rest.

“Our thinking was, rather than the typical stick approach, let’s find some carrots here,” says Mark Forest, who was Delahunt’s district director during the negotiations and now heads his Washington staff. “You can’t always just regulate people. If the goal is to conserve whales, you have to work with fishermen. It’s inappropriate to think these guys aren’t interested in saving whales. You need to treat them as partners.”

Thanks to Delahunt and Kennedy’s efforts, when Massachusetts fisheries regulators banned the floating line off Massachusetts’s coast early last year, the state’s lobstermen didn’t miss a beat. Most of them had made the switch to whale-safe gear more than two years before. And that wasn’t their only contribution to right whale protection. Ostrom more than a decade ago developed a buoy line that is designed to break away if it becomes entangled with a whale. The devices are now in wide use up and down the Atlantic coast.

“Typically conservation and fishing groups are not allies,” says Forest. “But this is one case where you had groups come together.”

the question now is whether the happy ending in Massachusetts can be repeated in Maine. The new Fisheries Service rules will set up a restricted fishing zone encompassing 30 percent of Maine state waters. Within that zone, the agency will require the lobstermen to use the sinking rope. So far, the rules have sparked the kind of standoff between environmentalists and fishermen that is, unfortunately, far more common than the compromise seen in Massachusetts. The Maine lobstermen say the zone includes areas where whales are rarely seen; environmentalists say the proposed zone is too small.

Nevertheless, Maine’s lobstermen are scrambling to come up with alternative fishing techniques that comply with the new requirements before they go into effect.

And they are getting help from an unlikely source: Scott Kraus, vice president for research and senior scientist at the New England Aquarium, in Boston, whose research on whale entanglements helped give rise to the new rules.

Kraus began meeting with the lobstermen and concerned environmentalists last fall. The idea is to find a rope that’s just buoyant enough not to get caught in rocks, but not so buoyant that it catches whales. “Fishermen are always reluctant to be regulated, but they’re also always innovating,” Kraus says. “The trick is to take advantage of their innovative capacity.”

The researchers and the lobstermen have until October to find some solutions. The Fisheries Service finalized the new rules last fall, but after protests from Maine’s Democratic governor, John Baldacci, and Republican U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, it agreed to hold off on implementation for a year.

Adler and other Bay State lobstermen aren’t directly critical of their colleagues to the north who take a hard line, but they say they have found the transition to the new rope to be relatively painless. Adler says that while gear has been lost, particularly off some rocky fishing grounds near Cape Ann, the worst-care scenario predicted by some has not happened. However, it could be trickier to determine the right kind of equipment for Maine, he says, since its lobstering grounds are notoriously rocky, in contrast to the Bay State’s mostly sandy grounds.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, says she figures the cost to her group’s members of buying new line could be more than $100 million. Without a more practical, alternative type of line, she warns that lobstermen would be stuck between “needing to feed their families and pay their bills and complying with a rule that will not allow them to do that.”

And if they do comply with the rule using the heavier rope now available, she argues, the effect may well prove self-defeating: To avoid having lines caught on rocks, lobstermen would probably attach a single trap to each buoy—dramatically multiplying the number of ropes in the water, and presumably the number of threats to the whales.

Kraus doesn’t see any silver bullet on the horizon. He expects the Maine lobstermen will have to make do under the new regime for at least a while. The lobstermen “have been their own worst enemy by not really engaging in the process and believing they could be protected by politics, and unfortunately the day of reckoning has come and they are in a situation where they really need some alternatives,” he says.

Even so, McCarron is hopeful. At her group’s first meeting with Kraus and the environmental community, she says, “There was some openness to think if there is a better solution that isn’t as harmful to us. Everyone agreed the goal is not to put the Maine lobster industry out of business but to conserve right whales.”

Meet the Author

Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
McCarron is lobbying hard to get the Fisheries Service to delay implementation for another 18 months beyond this October to give the lobstermen and Kraus more time to find gear alternatives. And she’s getting some help from Maine’s congressional delegation. Snowe and Democratic Rep. Tom Allen have written to Fisheries Service officials to protest the new rules.

But there is still no guarantee that the two sides will be able to work things out like their Bay State counterparts. The surest sign of that: McCarron is also raising money for a potential legal showdown with the Fisheries Service.