Maine Lobster Industry Backs Away From Agreement To Save Right Whales

North Atlantic Right Whale        Photo: Michael Dwyer, AP

The Maine lobster industry had agreed to reduce trap lines to save the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, but the agreement fell apart when lobster fishers balked at the government’s proposal to require them to remove up to half of their 800,000 lobster trap lines.  The Wall Street Journal reported this week on the impasse between the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service and the industry, with Democratic Governor Janet Mills siding with industry and the State of Maine doing further studies to come up with a counter-proposal.

Why This Matters:  There are fewer than 100 breeding age female North Atlantic Right Whales and as we have reported, there have been many whale deaths in the last two years due to entanglements in fishing lines and ship strikes.  The situation facing this species is particularly grim and drastic action is needed.  The industry believes that NOAA’s analysis of the need to reduce trap lines by 50% puts too much of the burden on them.  And to reduce lines puts the safety of lobstermen at risk. But the industry has been growing tremendously in recent years as lobsters have shifted north due to warming waters in New England – climate change “winners” for now.  The industry now contributes $1.5B  to the economy of Maine and many coastal communities rely entirely on the lobster fishery.  This is likely why the Democratic governor is backing industry for now and desperately looking for compromise.  Let’s hope they find one.  Fishing communities need to fish sustainably and must have more sources of jobs than relying on one fishery — just ask the cod fishermen in Massachusetts.

Lobster Boom and Bust

The state of Maine reported last March that lobster fishers caught $46 million more worth of lobster in 2018 than they did the previous year.  According to NOAA data reported by the Bangor Daily News:

  • Maine’s lobster fishery is by far the largest and most valuable commercial fishery in Maine and the largest lobster fishery in the country.
  • American lobster was the most valuable single-species harvested in the U.S. in 2015, 2016, and 2017, with Maine landings accounting for approximately 80 percent of that value each year.

Numerous factors including conservation efforts in Maine have led to the lobster boom, but scientists believe that climate change has been a huge contributor to the fishery’s success in recent years.  The New York Times reported in 2018 that the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans for much of this century but that the continued warming could cut lobster populations in the gulf by up to 62 percent by 2050.   According to the Times,

“Climate change really helped us for the last 20 years,” said Dave Cousens, who stepped down as president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association in March of 2018. But, he added, “Climate change is going to kill us, in probably the next 30.”

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