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Maine's lobster fishermen struggle with efforts to save right whales

Lobster fishermen are caught in a conflict: how to protect an endangered species, while also protecting their own endangered livelihood.
Maine's lobster fishermen struggle with efforts to save right whales
Posted at 4:06 PM, Feb 27, 2024

Willis Spear stands in the backyard of his Yarmouth, Maine home. Behind him are dozens of yellow and green lobster traps. Spear, 67, spends most of the winter preparing these traps to be deployed in the Gulf of Maine come April. It's a task this lifelong lobster fisherman has carried out each year since he was a child.

"The water gives us life," Spear said on an unusually warm winter day in late February.

Over the last decade, lobster fishermen in Maine have faced increasingly stronger financial headwinds — from the price of fuel to the revenue they are receiving for the lobster themselves. The lobster-fishing industry generates hundreds of millions of dollars for Maine's economy each year.

"It's been a difficult last couple of years. Some of my friends have dropped out altogether. Prices are going up but lobster prices are stuck at 1970s prices," Spear said.

Even in the dead of winter, the Gulf of Maine is providing a livelihood to scores of fishermen who depend on these waters to survive.

But it's not just money that Willis Spear and other lobster fishermen are concerned about

In the last month, two endangered right whales have died off of the Atlantic coast, both females who likely could have helped produce calves for the species. Scientists have now determined one, found near Martha's Vineyard, spent half of her life entangled in a fishing line from Maine.

With an estimated 360 right whales left on the planet, the death of this one whale has once again renewed the debate over how to reduce the number of fishing lines along our nation's coasts.

"There's pressure on us, we know that. It's a terrible thing. We know you can't systematically wipe out one thing without killing something else," Spear said.

With hundreds of thousands of fishing lines in the Atlantic Ocean, it's easy for right whales to become entangled. By one estimate, more than 80% of documented premature deaths were blamed on fishing gear.

"We have the nation's most valuable fishery. And we also have one of the rarest, most endangered whales on the East Coast that basically navigates through our fishery. It's a real challenge," said Patrick Kelliher, the commissioner for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Kelliher said the department understands the need to protect the right whale but also worries that federal regulators are unfairly placing the burden on lobster fishermen by restricting access to the Gulf of Maine and pushing new ropeless lobster-trapping systems.

SEE MORE: A group of commercial fishermen have ended up before the Supreme Court

In 2021, Scripps News first reported on how new ropeless lobster traps could help prevent entanglements. Maine recently received $5 million in federal funds to help test alternative fishing gear. But ropeless traps could cost fishermen tens of thousands of dollars, leaving Kelliher concerned that the federal government is moving too quickly to implement changes.

"It's important to understand what can work but also what doesn't work, and why it doesn't work. So we need good data on hand to show these ideas will or will not be economically viable in the long run," said Kelliher.

This all comes as mariners along the New England coast are being asked to slow down after a New England Aquarium aerial survey team sighted 31 North Atlantic right whales in shipping lanes east of Nantucket last week. 

"The biggest challenge with protecting whales is that people don't get to see them," said Philip Hamilton, who serves as senior scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium.

As for Willis Spear, he feels caught in the middle — wanting to save his livelihood while knowing the right whale needs saving as well.

"I'm against ropeless fishing. It sounds like it's good but it isn't. It sends fishermen to their doom. But we have hope that somehow this thing will be solved," said Spear.

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