When it rains, it pours. Maine lobstermen are grappling with the reality of the May 1 deadline for Round One of three in the 10-year whale plan. Round One only gets us to a 60% risk reduction on our way towards the 98% reduction mandated by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
Lobstermen are required to comply with these rules despite Maine’s nearly 20 year track record of zero documented right whale entanglements in our lobster gear— and despite the reality that the gear you need is not widely available to purchase. And many of you who have rigged with weak inserts have gone to haul only to find rope that has become unlaid, chaffed and broken, to watch weak links shatter while hauling or to find that your gear was just plain gone.
I have spoken with many of you and know how confused, anxious and frustrated you are. But it is imperative that every lobsterman, lobster buyer, or person who in some way depends on the lobster industry understands that this is just the first of three rounds of required risk reductions. There is no doubt that this round of whale rules has been difficult to comply with and has made lobstering more dangerous and your business more expensive to run. Yet I also have no doubt that Maine lobstermen will find a way to make it through this round of rules.
But it’s not close to being over. We have to think about what comes next.
NMFS now is saying that the 60% risk reduction we are currently implementing didn’t go far enough soon enough. Our fishery was scheduled for the next round of cuts in 2025, but now NMFS plans to fast track those regulations to get us to 90% reduction as soon as feasible. We know that by 2030, NMFS will require even deeper reductions to the fishery so that our risk is reduced cumulatively by 98%.
I don’t know about you, but I am really afraid of what this means for the future of Maine’s lobster fishery, for Maine’s exceptionally diverse fleet of owner-operators who literally keep our coastal economy afloat, and for the future of our children.
Think about it… what will it take for the fishery to get from 60% risk reduction to 90% risk reduction? The largest reduction credit by far (nearly two-thirds) in this first round of whale rules came from the two massive closures in Massachusetts. Weak rope, trawling up and the LMA 1 closure combined account for less than 1/3rd of the overall risk reduction in the first round of whale rules.
Now that the majority of U.S. waters where right whales frequent are closed to fishing, it will likely take massive, broad-scale gear reductions and/or new closures to get us to the 90% risk reduction NMFS is now aiming for.
Speculating, I would guess that to reach the 98% cumulative reduction in risk to right whales by 2030 would mean a near total closure of the lobster fishery, or a lobster fishery without rope.
This is the sobering reality for the Maine lobster fishery. So why don’t we just say ‘No’? I can assure you that the MLA has told NMFS that its plan will decimate the Maine fishery and fail to save whales. The MLA has challenged every bit of this plan as it has unfolded. But the environmental groups continue to push NMFS to do more through the courts, and sadly, the laws of our nation are clear that we either comply with the risk reduction goals or the federal lobster fishery will be shut down. And as if that is not bad enough, the environmental groups are asking the courts to have the federal and state waters fishery shut down as well.
NMFS’s 10-year whale plan threatens to erase our lobster fishery and our heritage. Not rhetorically, but literally! That is why the MLA is bringing all its guns to bear and is suing NMFS.
What does it take to sue the federal government? Good lawyers, sound legal arguments, and a lot of money. We have the first two, we need the third. The MLA must raise $10 million within three years to stay in this battle. We are fighting in the courts and the regulatory arena, through science and research, and through broad communications. With so much at stake, we must never be in a position where we don’t have the funds to mount the best fight possible on behalf of our industry.
The MLA is so grateful to everyone who has dug deep and supported us. There have been so many lobstermen, businesses, individuals and communities who have stepped up. In particular, the MLA is gratified and encouraged by a $200,000 contribution from John and Brendan Ready.
We truly hope their generosity will inspire others to think about what the lobster industry means to them and what is at stake for each and every one of us if Maine were to lose this fishery.
Yes, it’s true that when it rains, it pours. Collectively we all have a long road ahead of us. The MLA believes in men and women, the small wharves and large companies that make up the Maine lobster fishery. We believe that our community will step up to make sure the MLA will win this battle.
As always, stay safe on the water.