The Maine lobster industry, led by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and aided by the well-funded Lobster Marketing Collaborative, has effectively dominated the narrative around regulations to protect right whales. Fundraisers and messaging campaigns frame whale protections as an existential threat to lobster fishing.
Unfortunately, on the losing end of these marketing tactics are right whales, which will likely be functionally extinct by 2037 if more isn’t done to prevent entanglement and vessel strikes.
Maine’s lobster fishery has the most rope in the ocean within right whale habitat. Like all fisheries, it’s legally obligated to reduce unintentional harm to species that are threatened or endangered. The fishery claims it’s done its part, pointing to a lack of recent documented right whale entanglements in Maine fishing gear.
But that’s not the whole story.
There are only around 340 right whales remaining. Detection data show they traverse areas where Mainers are fishing, despite media interviews with fishermen saying they’ve never seen a right whale. Scientists have documented 1,755 right whale entanglements over 40 years, but fewer than 30 can be traced to a specific fishery. That’s less than 2% of known entanglements.
Maine politicians and lobster industry representatives choose to ignore this 98% data gap, making the unsupportable claim that Maine lobster gear hasn’t entangled any right whales since 2004.
Maine’s lobster industry and congressional delegation resisted gear marking for entanglement traceability, finally implementing state-specific marking in 2020. In the three years since, NOAA has documented 84 large whale entanglements where fishing gear remained on the whale. Still, only 11 of those entanglements could be traced to a specific fishery, and seven of them were in Maine lobster gear. At least two of these Maine entanglements were fatal.
How long before one of the few right whales remaining turns up in Maine fishing gear?
It is important to emphasize that no fisherman intends to harm whales. However, effective entanglement prevention strategies depend on collaboration between fish harvesters, scientists and policy makers. Inflammatory statements made by Maine Lobstermen’s Association leadership and state politicians stoke fears in fishing communities, undermine collaboration and disregard decades of peer-reviewed scientific research.
Contrary to assertions made against the conservation community, no one is trying to put the lobster fishery out of business. Instead, people are working tirelessly on solutions for both fishermen and whales, a process made better with input from fishers. Change will likely demand compromise and adaptation, but with federal funding and state investment, change is possible. The cost of entanglement prevention should not fall on our fishing communities.
It defies logic and common decency that Maine, a state with an economy tightly linked to its ocean harvesting heritage, is not leading the effort to prevent all whale entanglement. Indeed, Mainers should demand this from our elected leaders. The lobster fishery remains one of the most lucrative in the country. Maine can afford to do the right thing for the critically endangered right whale, and other whale species at risk of entanglement.
To that end, the Maine delegation should secure the money promised by the omnibus rider to fund and implement ropeless gear testing and adoption. Though often portrayed by industry gatekeepers as some far-off solution, ropeless gear retrieval systems are being used commercially in Canadian crab and lobster fisheries, and in Massachusetts lobster fishing right now. It could be used in closed Maine fishing areas, too.
Maine politicians and industry leaders should champion solutions to this very real problem so that our lobster fishery and whales can more safely co-exist. Whales are an important part of Maine’s biodiversity and have a right to continued existence. We can do better to live up to our reputation for sustainable ocean harvesting. True sustainability goes beyond a well-managed fishing stock. It must also account for broader impacts on the ecosystem – by this standard, we’re not there yet.