Maine lobster boat (Photo by Peter Ravella, CNT)

ME - Rep. Allison Hepler: More and better data can protect lobstering and right whales

The word “reprieve” is being used to describe the late-December federal action that produced a 6-year delay in implementing federal whale rules, as well as new funding for research and gear innovations in the lobster fishery.

A reprieve is welcome, but it does not mean that the industry can step back and go about business as usual. Fortunately, that’s not what is happening.

This past summer, the National Oceanic and Aeronautical Administration (NOAA) had fast-tracked its implementation of rules around the endangered North Atlantic Right Whales, which would have made immediate and dramatic changes to Maine’s lobster fishery in two years rather than 10. In response, in the midst of our early-winter coastal storm that occurred just before Christmas last year, Maine’s federal delegation secured a 6-year pause in the implementation of those regulations, and also provided $55 million in funding for research and monitoring. This action was a welcome break for Maine lobstermen.

Science is at the heart of the work that needs to be done. Some of the funding will allow for continued research into better understanding the behavior and distribution of right whales as a result of the changing environmental situation in the Gulf of Maine. It is dramatically warming, and the whales’ favorite food is shifting east into Canadian waters. Organizations such as Bigelow Laboratories are likely to receive some of this funding to continue its research on the impact of this shift.

This funding will also be used for vessel surveys, passive acoustic monitoring, aerial surveys, and potentially developing a successful system of whale tagging. This would ideally provide more targeted management of fishing in these areas to protect whales. Instead of broad closures and gear changes, if we can learn where the whales actually are, we can better identify areas of risk.

Similarly, ongoing research to determine how lobsters are adapting to changes in the Gulf of Maine will inform scientists about the impact of current whale protection measures on the industry.

Also included in this Congressional package is research funding for new gear technology. At the behest of federal regulations, lobster fishermen have already adopted conservation measures such as weak links and weak rope, and over the past 30 years, eliminated nearly 30,000 miles of rope in the water. If the next level of protection means ropeless fishing gear or something similar, then it needs to be effective and easy to use. In addition, this new technology needs to consider location, ensuring that one person’s gear isn’t landing on another’s. Finally, any new technology that does not include rope needs to include effective enforcement mechanisms.

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