Lobster industry facing ‘perfect storm’ of threats amid right whale controversy

A lobster being held by two hands
Chris Tobey examines a lobster he caught in Kittery, ME. PHOTO: Haley Hersey
A lobster being held by two hands
Chris Tobey examines a lobster he caught in Kittery, Maine. PHOTO: Haley Hersey

By Haley Hersey

Maine’s lobstering industry is being threatened, but lobstermen aren’t going down without a fight.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) and the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) sued the federal government in September 2021 over what the MLA has called a “fundamentally flawed” 10-year whale protection plan.

In mid June, the federal government ruled in favor of the MLA saying the district court was “not just wrong, it was egregiously wrong.”

“DMR has been working on this issue on many fronts, from engaging industry in the development of a plan that accommodates different fishing practices along the coast to battling in the courts for better use of the data,” said Jeff Nichols, communications director for the Maine DMR.

“This win means that we have a chance to get the federal government back on track, and a real chance to find a way forward to ensure that right whales recover without devastating the lobster fishery,” said Patrice McCarron, policy director for the MLA.

At issue is whether lobster traps cause the endangered North Atlantic right whale to become entangled and die. Lobstermen say that’s not the case, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says it is.

There are about 330 North Atlantic right whales and 1,000 Gulf of Maine humpbacks left, according to David Morin, the large whale disentanglement coordinator for the NOAA.

Bundles of rope on the side of the boat
Extra rope is stored on the side of Chris Tobey’s boat. PHOTO: Haley Hersey

“Whales can become entangled in anything, including rope from active or derelict fishing gear, chains from navigational buoys or even debris,” Morin said. “Basically, if it is in the ocean and big enough to wrap around a whale then it has the potential.”

Monterey Bay Aquarium in California put U.S. and Canadian lobster on its “red list” of species to avoid while claiming Maine lobster fishing endangers right whales. These claims caused some retailers to take Maine lobster off their menus. In response, the MLA and several other organizations sued the aquarium for defaming the industry. As a result of the claims, lobstermen in the state have adapted their practices and adhered to increased regulations.

“This is their livelihood, these fishermen want to look after their livelihood,” said Amber-Jean Nickel, chief operating officer of the MLA. “It affects everything Maine, if you think about it.”

Specifically, the whales are said to get entangled in vertical ropes that are attached to buoys and lobster traps, also known as lobster pots. The pots are rectangular boxes containing bait to lure lobsters into them, which are released overboard where they sink to the bottom of the ocean, according to The University of Maine’s (UMO) Lobster Institute.

Chris Tobey looks at rope in a storage bin.
Fourth-generation lobsterman Chris Tobey inspects his fishing line that has added breakaways and paint to keep with increased regulations. PHOTO: Haley Hersey

Fishermen on big boats that use long lines or nets to harvest ground fish can go for different species, if the species they primarily fish collapses. But lobstermen can’t do that, said Robert Steneck, professor of oceanography, marine biology and marine policy at UMO.

“You can only catch lobsters in a lobster trap in Maine. The lobster trap is really not suited for something else,” said Steneck, who is also associate faculty at the Lobster Institute.

Possible solutions to the lobster trap ropes include trawling up, or fishing up to 20 traps on one buoy, and using on-demand lobster gear. Fishing that many traps with one buoy poses a real risk of capsizing and that ropeless, on-demand gear doesn’t pass the straight face, said Richard Wahle, UMO professor and director of the Lobster Institute.

“It makes it of course a huge challenge to find the trap to begin with. If you can’t see where those end lines are, it’s hard to know where to set them,” Wahle said.

There is no evidence of Maine lobstermen causing death to a right whale and lobstermen are working to come back with science and data to support the lobstermen’s claims, Nickel said.

Warming waters affecting whales
The reason right whales are disappearing isn’t because of lobstermen, according to experts.

Water in Southern New England is traditionally warmer than in the Gulf of Maine. Wahle’s said during his career, the lobster population in the Gulf of Maine has had a boom because of warming waters. 

“That warming has had in southern New England an adverse effect, and conditions have only gotten worse,” he said. “That same amount of warming coming to a colder place, has actually made things more favorable for lobsters.”

The warming waters have had an impact on the decreasing numbers of right whales in the gulf as far back as 2017, said Curt Brown, marine biologist for Ready Seafood in Portland. 

As the waters have gotten warmer, the plankton right whales eat have moved toward the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the whales follow their food source, he said.

The lower number of right whales is a plankton issue, not because of lobster gear, Steneck said. Without food, the whales become malnourished and therefore cannot reproduce, he said.

 “There’s no evidence that I have seen that that is due to entanglement,” he said.

“Right whales are endangered species,” Brown said. “It’s important to protect these majestic species.” 

Even though the issue is polarizing, Brown said he thinks no one in the country has done as much about protecting right whales as Maine’s lobster industry. 

“I think we’re all on the same side of this issue,” Brown said. “Despite how divisive it can be.”

Lobster regulations have been around for a long time
In Maine, the state government and local lobstering communities have been imposing regulations on the trade for years. 

Conservation efforts include: minimum and maximum sizes that can be harvested, caps on the number of traps that can be fished and the number of licenses issued and egg-bearing females cannot be culled.

If you look back at lobstering before the right whale conversation, “lobstering was always sustainable,” Nickel said.

Maine State Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli said the data that the federal agencies have been using to put restrictions on the Maine lobster industry are not necessarily based on the best science.

“We need to keep doing research and making sure what we’re building our policy around is accurate,” she said.

If a female is hauled up in a trap and she has eggs on her abdomen, state law requires the lobsterman cuts a v-shaped notch into its right tail flipper. Sixty percent of female lobsters within the harvestable size are v-notched, according to Wahle.

The number of traps a lobsterman can fish with depends on their age, the location they fish and the type of license they have. In Maine there are Class I, II and III, apprentice, student, noncommercial lobster and crab fishing licenses and nonresident lobster and crab landing permits.

While the number of traps can vary, most commercial licenses allow for hundreds of traps to be fished by commercial fishermen. For example, Maine law says during open season on Monhegan Island, the limit is 400 traps per person.

Lobstering is an investment from the license, gear and boat. One lobster trap is worth about $100, said Steneck. 

Regulations help with conservation and sustainability of the industry.

“It’s really just common sense rules that maintain our fishery,” Brown said. 

Financial influences impacting the industry
The Maine lobster fishery supply chain, on average, generates $1 billion, according to a 2018 study by a Colby College economics professor.

Maine contributes 90% of the nation’s lobster, according to the state Office of Business Development.

“The Maine lobster industry is a vital economic engine for our state,” said Nichols. “In many of our coastal communities, it is the primary employer economic foundation.”

A barrel of red fish used as bait.
Red fish is used as bait and stored in a drum on the boat. PHOTO: Haley Hersey

There is a crisis with bait used to fish lobster. Herring, the number one bait used, is at an all time low as far as abundance and quota, according to Steneck. Additionally lobster cost per pound dropped – almost in half – last year, which it didn’t do during the pandemic, he said.

The lobster community is facing some rocky waters. From the right whales debate causing changes in regulations, changing water temperatures and economic impacts, the fate of the profession is uncertain.

As the industry faces what Steneck called “a perfect storm” of plights, lobstermen aren’t ready to lose their traditional, inherited way of life. 

“There’s a lot of nervousness around in the lobster industry,” Steneck said. “And I think deservedly so.”

About Haley Hersey 4 Articles
Haley Hersey was born and raised in central Maine. She got her master’s degree in journalism from Emerson College and her bachelor’s degree in media studies from the University of Southern Maine. She has two tuxedo cats she adores and enjoys baking and cooking in her free time.