By Senator Marianne Moore
AUGUSTA – Maine’s lobster industry is renowned for harvesting the sweetest, most tender lobster meat in the world. Our rocky coastline, craggy ocean bottoms and water that is neither too warm nor too cold set us up perfectly for the Homarus americanus, or American lobster, species we harvest. They are the most sought after in the world, and even inspired the name of a restaurant chain.
Maine’s iconic crustacean is not only a billion-dollar industry, but also a part of our state’s ethos and heritage. We’ve been fishing for these “bugs” since the 1800s, and the industry was one of the first to self-regulate when fishermen adopted a rule 150 years ago to protect the fishery by returning egg-bearing females. Size and other limitations have been put in place since to ensure the population’s sustainability.
Lobstering can be a hazardous profession, too. The typical season for most of Maine’s lobstermen is June to October when lobsters are closer to shore in their preferred habitat of up to 164 feet of water. When the water gets cold, however, they can move as far as 30 miles offshore where conditions are more challenging and dangerous for fishermen.
Lobstering is also expensive. Years of regulatory changes have stressed the industry with the mandated removal of all surface float rope, weaker links and the replacement of 27,000 miles of floating ground line with whale-safe sinking line in 2009. The industry also underwent changes during the past year in the way lobstermen fish, from increasing the number of traps per buoy to incorporating weaker links and rope into their gear.
They’ve also suffered under the Biden Administration through the closure of about 967 square miles of winter lobstering waters in the Gulf of Maine. The National Marine Fisheries Service issued new rules in August 2021 that closed a portion of the offshore lobster management fishing area stretching from just south of Bath to Blue Hill. The fisheries service said the ban of vertical fishing lines from October to January is an attempt to reduce the risk of entangling North Atlantic right whales.
Which brings us to the latest attack on our beleaguered lobster industry, this time from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Recently, Seafood Watch placed American Lobster on its “red” list of species to avoid because entanglement in fishing gear is “the leading cause of serious injury and death to North Atlantic right whales.”
It seems the aquarium has designated Maine’s entire lobster industry as a danger to right whales despite the fact that there hasn’t been a documented whale entanglement with Maine-based lobster equipment since 2004. In fact, evidence shows the right whale population actually increased by as much as 53 percent to a peak of 481 in 2011 since the industry made wholesale changes beginning in 1997. However, that figure has gone down precipitously since 2017 in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration describes as an “Unusual Mortality Event.”
There have been 34 confirmed dead-stranded whales since 2017, including 21 first observed in Canadian waters and none observed in Maine, according to NOAA. The majority were due to unknown causes, while 11 involved vessel strikes and nine were the result of entanglements.
There also have been 20 serious injuries to right whales in that time; and about half of all entangled whales in U.S. waters were first observed as far south as Florida and outside New England.
On a positive note, however, NOAA said 20 mother/calf pairs were detected during the 2020-21 calving season — the highest number since 2013. Still, the agency estimates there are fewer than 350 right whales remaining.
It’s obvious Seafood Watch’s “red” listing of American Lobster is misguided and completely specious given all the efforts of thousands of Maine lobstermen to reduce whale entanglements – I’m sure those efforts will continue. They’ve proven those efforts don’t matter, nor the fact of where the majority of these whale entanglements or deaths are occurring.
As a marine research aquarium, you would think they’d have higher research standards than that.
Senator Marianne Moore is in her second term in the Maine Senate and represents the Washington and Hancock County communities of District 6. She is the Senate Republican Lead for the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.