Future of lobster fishing in Northeast, endangered whales depends on new federal rules

Lobster after being caught
Posted at 12:16 PM, Aug 30, 2021

The lobster industry in the Northeast may have to change how it operates, based on a new federal rule expected by the end of summer. The potential changes are meant to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, but the impacts on the lobstermen are unknown.

It’s a career Chris Welch has spent nearly two decades working at in Maine.

“I started lobstering with my grandfather when I was about six years old,” he said.

But how he operates his business could soon change.

Due to the migration patterns of the North Atlantic right whale along the east coast, the federal government is looking to set new regulations to help mitigate entanglements. That’s when whales or other marine life get tangled in fishing gear.

Since 2017, there have been 14 cases of this whale species being seriously injured by entanglements, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Their population currently sits at about 360.

“If you’re a whale swimming naturally in the water and you come across a rope, you might not necessarily understand what a rope is,” said Sean Todd, the director of Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic.

Allied Whale is a marine mammal research program in the Gulf of Maine.

“We think in a number of cases, the whale tends to panic. So it rolls and then you get further wraps around the animal,” he said.

The NOAA released a biological opinion in May, giving lobstermen an idea of the rules being considered, from seasonal fishing closures to the use of weaker ropes that snap when whales encounter them, to ropeless fishing.

Zack Kylver, an advocate of ropeless fishing gear and former whale watching guide and naturalist, is trying to get ropeless technology into the hands of lobstermen up and down the Northeast coast.

“The solution to whale entanglement is closures. The solution to closures that don't allow fishermen to put vertical lines in there is ropeless fishing,” Klyver said.

Ropeless fishing uses an acoustic release and more technology than a traditional lobster fishing setup. The acoustic release turns a shaft that unscrews a link, the cover along with a bout comes off the trap with a rope to the surface. Everything can be tracked using an app.

A system like this starts at a few thousand dollars. For comparison, a regular lobster trap starts at a couple hundred.

“We’re going to have to subsidize this to help the fishermen to afford this but right now we’re at a point where we’re just trying offshore to see if we can start with some fishermen to test it and see if this can be part of the solution,” Klyver said.

He says it can be part of the solution for a more complex issue.

“On the one hand we’re very glad that the agency found that permitting our fishery will not jeopardize the survival of right whales,” said Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

She helps advocate for the lobster fisheries.

“But that finding comes with a 10-year conservation plan. In over 10 years, they want us to reduce our risk by 98%,” she explained. “So the question is, what form of the Maine lobster fishery could possibly exist with a 98% risk reduction? We are a fleet of over 4,500 vessels.”

“With what’s coming down the pipe toward us, we don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Welch said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do differently that I’m going to enjoy as much as this.”

“I recognize the lobster fishery as being culturally incredibly important and economically incredibly important to the state. But I am also very interested in helping fishermen become stewards of the problem,” Todd said.

So, what could the new regulations mean? For one thing, the owner of The Clam Shack in Maine, Steve Kingston, said they could impact prices.

“I do think that the harder and harder it is on the men and women who fish this, and then the more expensive it's going to become, it could get out of touch with the public. It’s an expensive protein and we’re even seeing it this year. This is the most expensive clams and or lobster have ever been,” Kingston said.

“It’s a business but it’s honestly a way of life,” McCarron said.

They expect to know the scope of the new regulations from the federal government by the end of the summer.