Steaming Ahead – February 2021

I looked forward to turning the calendar on 2020. 2021 would of course be better; how can it not be?  

The lobster industry has plenty of reason to feel hopeful. The lobster resource remains healthy, the fishery is sustainable, and markets did not collapse during the pandemic. Lobstermen qualified for several pandemic aid programs to help make up for the softening of lobster prices. Most importantly, Maine lobstermen got to be at sea and do what they love.  

The Maine lobster fishery has faced its fair share of obstacles over the years, but always seems to land on its feet. Maine’s sustainable fishing practices have gone a long way in providing a safety net for lobstermen in the face of so many environmental and regulatory changes. Maine’s lobster dealers have remained nimble despite trade wars and unstable markets. They have developed new markets and product innovations to ensure our highly perishable product makes it to consumers. Bait suppliers have come through as well. In the face of historic declines in the herring population, Maine lobstermen have retained access to a steady bait supply. Overcoming any of these issues would have seemed impossible a decade ago. Yet we have made it through. 

MLA board members Tad Miller and Bob Baines at a board meeting. MLA photo.

The MLA has been there through it all, fighting to keep Maine lobstermen fishing and our coastal communities strong. There is a resiliency to this industry that brings us together to pull through the hard times. 

Enter 2021. A year of new opportunities, I hope. A year of unprecedented challenges, I know.  

What has me so worried? The two “W”’s – wind and whales. Both of these issues pose an existential threat to our industry.  

Why I am worried about offshore wind energy development? Because there is an implicit assumption and belief that offshore wind farms will provide an affordable source of renewable energy while creating new green jobs in harmony with the state’s fishing economy. I’ve learned just enough about offshore wind development in the past few years to be dangerous, and I truly believe that we are being sold a bill of goods from large international corporations.  

As I said in a recent press statement, the state should be wary of trading its fishing heritage by entering a race to fulfill the empty promises from international energy companies. The best-case scenario for future offshore wind projects would mean siting wind farms to minimize impacts on the fishing industry and the environment, followed by a compensation package for fishermen who are harmed.  

The bottom line is that development of offshore wind will require that we put a price tag on our fishing heritage and let large energy companies buy it off, piece by piece, as they industrialize the ocean. This is not a vision I can support for our industry. 

And then right whales… how worried should we be? If you asked me that in December, I would have been cautiously optimistic that reason will prevail at NMFS and that there will be a way through for the lobster fishery, as we know it, to continue. However, the publication of the draft Biological Opinion, required under the ESA, in January has been a game changer. 

Under the draft Biological Opinion, NMFS can continue to permit the federal lobster fishery only if the Proposed Rule from NMFS is implemented 2021. The Proposed Rule contains measure to hit the 60% risk reduction target set by NMFS. We don’t like the target and we’ve been fighting it, but the Biological Opinion will require that the rule be put in place in order to continue to permit the fishery. 

Discovering a way to help right whales actually see vertical lines and avoid them would be a giant gain for both whales and lobstermen. NOAA photo.

And that’s just phase 1 of what we need to do to keep the lobster fishery open. The draft Biological Opinion contains three additional phases, each with its own risk reduction target, to be implemented over a 10-year period. It will require gillnetters and other trap/pot fishermen to make their own 60% risk reductions in 2023 (phase 2). After that, all federal fixed gear fisheries will go through a second round of 60% risk reduction in 2025 (phase 3), and then a final 87% risk reduction in 2030 (phase 4). 

This equates to a 98% risk reduction for the lobster fishery, as well as the gillnet and other trap/pot fisheries! 

The worst of this plan is that it does so little for the right whale population. NMFS uses a computer model to predict the effects of measures outlined in the draft Biological Opinion on right whales over 50 years. In one scenario, NMFS assumes that all U.S. fixed gear fisheries are shut down – no one fishes in federal waters. The model predicts that with a complete shutdown of the lobster, Jonah crab, gillnet and other trap/pot fisheries, the right whale population will continue to decline due to other factors, such as vessel strikes and entanglement in Canadian fisheries gear, and reproductive failure. In this scenario, the model predicts the death of 64 female right whales over 50 years.  

Next NMFS assumes that federal fixed gear fisheries continue to operate, but under the ever-tightening risk reduction targets of the draft Biological Opinion. In this case, the agency’s model predicts that after 50 years the right whale population has declined and suffered a loss 69 females. Five more whales, according to the model, than if there were a full shutdown of fixed gear fisheries. 

So what’s the point of all this? And what are the long-term ramifications for Maine’s lobstermen and their communities if the sequential phases of the draft Biological Opinion slowly snuff out a sustainable fishery for which little evidence exists of its harming right whales?  

Who will ensure that, before the last lobsterman brings his boat to the beach, the Canadian federal government puts in place regulations to protect right whales that are at least as stringent as ours?  

NMFS’s computer model offers a third scenario forecasting the future for right whales that assumes both the U.S. and Canada implement the measures contained within the draft Biological Opinion. It predicts that when both countries take equivalent action, the right whale population will increase. Within fifty years’ time, 24 females would be added to the current population.  

MLA has been saying it for years, and now NMFS has quantified it. Maine lobstermen cannot save right whales by ourselves. If right whales are going to rebuild to a robust population, as they did until 2010, all the actors in this unfurling tragedy must take action. The burden must not rest solely on the backs of lobstermen, crab fishermen, gillnetters and other trap or pot fishermen.  

I am forever an optimist, but the issues we are facing in 2021 are keeping me awake at night. We again must marshal the troops and organize our allies in yet another battle to remain on the water, as we have done so many times before.  

As always, stay safe on the water. 

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