Obie Spear, right, Eric Donahue and Topher Pidden offload pogie gear from the fishing vessel Tenacious onto a trailer at high tide on Wednesday in the Old Port before heading back out to haul lobster. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

ME - Maine lobstermen signal opposition to participating in ropeless testing program

The state has been awarded $5.1 million to research alternatives to the traditional trap-and-buoy lobster gear that requires vertical lines that can entangle whales.

Maine lobstermen are signaling their hesitation to participate in a multimillion-dollar program the state is launching to test new ropeless technology that the federal government soon may require to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has been awarded $5.1 million from the federal government and a national nonprofit to research alternatives to the traditional trap-and-buoy lobster gear that requires vertical lines that can entangle the whales. But amid criticism and cynicism from many in the lobster industry, the department and its partnering organizations may face challenges recruiting lobstermen to play a key role in the evaluations.

“There’s no sense of wasting a lot of time and effort on our part into something that is not going to work,” said Colin Grierson, a longtime lobsterman in Midcoast Maine, “It’s going to take time away from when you’re normally fishing in a more traditional method when the end (conclusion) is not going to be ‘this is going to work great.’ It’s not.”

The $5.1 million award comes from the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which are facilitating an $18.3 million grant program across New England. The 18 awards are intended to advance the development of “innovative fishing gear” as an alternative to vertical fishing lines, or ropes dangling in the ocean, that federal regulators contend are severely harming the right whale populations.


NOAA lays out plans for expanded testing of ropeless fishing technology

The NOAA estimates that over 85% of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. According to the agency’s September 2023 tracker, fishing-gear entanglements have caused 65% of the 121 incidents that killed or seriously injured right whales since 2017. No right whale deaths have been conclusively linked to the state’s lobstering industry and the last known entanglement in Maine was nearly two decades ago. But scientists also emphasize that there hasn’t been enough gear marking to precisely nail down where a whale has been entangled.


In 2021, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service released regulations that were intended to lower the risk of entanglement, including a reduction in the number of vertical fishing lines and an increase in the amount of a vertical line’s breakable points.

Lobstermen have been largely unhappy with the regulations, fearing that the regulations will destroy the lobstering industry as they know it. Maine’s congressional delegation succeeded in securing legislative approval for a reprieve that stalls the regulations from going into effect until Jan. 1, 2029. Industry groups also have succeeded in taking NOAA to court, where the regulations are still tied up.

Read more.