ME - Our View: Dispute over lobstering in Gulf of Maine close to running aground

If the goal is to protect both right whales and the fishing industry, the debate is heading in the wrong direction.

There is a way for both the lobster industry and the endangered North Atlantic right whale to prosper in the Gulf of Maine. There has to be.

For sure, we didn’t get any closer to a solution this week, as Seafood Watch, a sustainable-seafood advocacy group, put American lobster on its “red list,” indicating to consumers that it should be avoided – and antagonizing the entirety of coastal Maine.

If anything, that makes finding a resolution even harder. It’s just one more reason for Maine lobstermen to believe that nothing short of a complete shutdown will appease their critics.

They’ve got a point. Seafood Watch based its decision on the lobster industry’s use of vertical lines running from traps to the surface.

Entanglement in these kind of lines is, along with ship strikes, the greatest threat to right whales, whose population is down below an estimated 370 and cannot withstand many more premature deaths. Neither Canadian nor U.S. management measures, Seafood Watch said, do enough to prevent it.

What the group does not mention is that, in addition to operating an sustainable fishery, the Maine lobster industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the lobster caught in the U.S., has done everything that’s been asked of them to protect right whales.

When floating ropes emerged as a problem, lobstermen switched to sinking lines. They switched out their ropes once to include colors specific to their industry and state, so that the source of entanglements can be identified, and are doing it again now to include weak points in the rope, so that it will break away if a whale is caught in it. They are also placing more traps on each line in order to limit the number of vertical lines.

Though the lobster industry disputes the need for the most stringent of these regulations, lobstermen were still doing everything they could to comply before supply chain problems made it nearly impossible.

They were doing so even as real questions remain over the source of entanglements and ship strikes, most of which have been in Canada. The last known entanglement in state waters was in 2004, and no whale death has been definitely linked to the Maine lobster industry.

What’s more, there is good evidence that right whales are moving north, out of Maine waters, as the Gulf of Maine warms and their preferred food source moves to cooler waters. Sightings are exceedingly rare.

Still, a federal court, agreeing with environment groups, ruled in July that even the newest, more stringent regulations don’t do enough to eliminate risk to right whales and, thus, violate the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Now Seafood Watch is telling its partners the same thing, and as a result those restaurants, distributors and grocery stores could decide to stop buying Maine lobster.

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