Young Lobstermen Weigh In on 20 Years of Whale Regulations

Young Maine lobstermen have never fished at a time when stringent whale regulations weren’t in place. Jon Nunan, Ben Nunan and Julian Zuke in Cape Porpoise wonder what future rules may be in store for them. S. Wigglesworth photo.

It’s been twenty years since whale protection measures were put in place for Maine lobstermen through the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. Yet in 2017, 17 North Atlantic right whales died as a result of entanglement in fishing gear. Twelve of the deceased whales were found in Canadian waters and the remaining four were found in U.S. waters.
How have the whale protection measures put in place during the past two decades affected Maine lobstermen, and how will these regulations impact them in the future? Landings sat down with three young offshore Maine lobstermen and a few from the older generation to find out what the regulations have meant to them and to discuss their ideas on finding a reasonable solution to the whale dilemma.
Jonathan Nunan, 30, who fishes the F/V Vengeance out of Cape Porpoise Harbor remembers that the whale regulations went into effect when he was a kid and apprenticing with his father. “It was huge for the older guys. The sinking rope that was required [beginning in 2009] was way more expensive and it didn’t last as long. It’s still like that. A lot of it is no good after a year or so because of all the hard ground and the chaffing,” he said. “The expense of the rope and the time it took then to change it over, and then replace it again after a short period of time meant less time to actually catch lobster. Now our profit is cut because we have to pay for the required gear to prevent entangling whales.”
Julian Zuke, 22, fishes the F/V Evelyn Marie out of Cape Porpoise. He started lobstering after the whale rules were in full swing but thinks that regulations had one benefit. “I think that all the red and green marks we are required to put on our rope just proves that Maine fishermen are not the problem because there have been so few whales found [entangled in rope] with these marks on it. Maybe it’s time to look at other possible reasons for the whales dying.” According to National Marine Fisheries Service data on rope removed from whales, three ropes have been found with red markers. There has been only one case of a right whale confirmed in Maine lobster gear in 2002. This whale was last seen alive and gear free in 2017.
An older lobsterman who wished to remain anonymous wondered about the health of the whales that have died from entanglement. “In all my years out there, I have never seen any whale entangled. How do we know the ones that were caught up in rope and found did not die or were weakened by other factors? To blame it solely on fishermen is wrong,” he said.
Chris Welch, 30, fishes the F/V Foolish Pride homeported in Kennebunkport. Welch believes that sinking rope has had a major impact on the industry. “I think the major change that has impacted lobstermen has been the no floating groundline. The older fishermen were able to fish harder bottom with less worry about chaffing gear off because the rope didn’t lay on the bottom,” he noted. “It was likely more significant for them to learn how the roped worked than it’s been for us growing up with it. The whale rules have been a way of doing business for me. I haven’t really known any different since I’ve been fishing. I just know it’s what we have to do to operate each day, and the alternative, to not fish, is worse.”
The problem, he added, is that each regulation costs lobstermen time as well as money. “Even though I grew up with the rules, they still affect me and other lobstermen. I have done work with the MLA board and served on committees to find ways to live with the current regulations and look for new ways to protect whales that won’t hurt fishermen. I do this because we need to make a living and the changes impact our livelihood more than people probably realize.” The other lobstermen in the room nodded in agreement.
Zuke, Welch and Nunan are very concerned with the talk of ropeless lobster fishing as a possible way to keep whales from becoming entangled in the future. “That would be the end for a lot of fishermen everywhere,” Zuke said.
Welch agreed and added, “We take these whale regulations very seriously. We are doing what we are supposed to. We need to find a way to co–exist with a reasonable solution for all involved. More regulation is not the answer.”
Nunan asked a question that weighs on many lobstermen’s minds, “We are doing our best to try to follow the rules to save the whales, but who is going to save us when we can no longer fish?”

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