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Maine lobsterman say 'red listing' a threat to their livelihoods without cause

Lobsterman are pushing back against the recent decision by an environmental organization to recommend people avoid eating American lobster.

PORTLAND, Maine — The men and women who harvest Maine lobster say new restrictions on fishing, combined with the so-called “red listing” of lobster by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, are a threat to their livelihoods, and the economy of coastal Maine.

Both the listing and fishing regulations are part of the ongoing efforts to protect the endangered right whale. Fishermen, however, say those steps are misdirected, because they are not to blame for the decline of the right whale.

"I truly believe the lobstermen have done everything we’ve been asked by National Marine Fisheries and the DMR [Maine Department of Marine Resources],” said Gerry Cushman, who has been lobstering in Port Clyde for 38 years.

“We’re not the bad guys here," he said. "You ask us to do it, we do it. So why are you putting us on the red list?"

The Seafood Watch listing is recommending consumers not buy American lobster from either the U.S. or Canada. Maine is the primary producer of that lobster for the U.S. Cushman said he believes Seafood Watch has taken the action against Maine fishermen to pressure them to stop fighting proposed regulations in court.

“Because we challenged the science. We have that right to be able to challenge science. We have a lot of knowledge, and that’s why we challenge it. But to put us on the red list is a kind of bullying,” he said.

Steve Train, a lobsterman from Long Island in Casco Bay, echoed those points, saying Maine fishermen have followed all the whale protection rules, even though they have also been challenging them in court.

“So everything that’s been asked of us, we have done. So to come out of left field and change the rating on the most sustainable fishery in the country is ludicrous. It doesn’t make any sense,” Train said.

Both fishermen’s comments were echoed by Luke Holden of Luke’s Lobster, a business that buys and processes lobster in Maine, and has a variety of wholesale and retail outlets around the northeast, including a restaurant in Portland.

“These fishermen, they are the stewards of sustainability. So when a third party organization not dedicated to facts or available scientific information comes and attacks our fishery and red rates it as a not sustainable fishery, of course, we will take it as an attack and respond,” Holden said.

He told us he worked with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, and eventually the rest of Maine’s top political leaders, to meet with Monterey Bay in 2020 after they first heard about a potential red listing of lobster. The Seafood Watch people, he said, did not listen to Maine’s arguments.

“We worked with them [Monterey Bay] to make sure they had all the facts, and it became clear over that back and forth that they were only giving lip service, and were not interested in the facts," Holden said. "They weren’t interested in the scientific data we had to offer. This was an organization not motivated by the facts, not interested in hard data and their minds were made up.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and environmental groups argue that right whales are in danger of becoming entangled in the thousands of ropes in the water that connect lobster traps to floating buoys. But Holden, the fishermen, King and others have repeatedly argued that Maine lobster gear is not a threat to right whales.

“There has never been a whale mortality attributed to the Maine lobster fishery,” Train said. “We mark our gear distinctly different from any other fishermen. There hasn’t been an entanglement with Maine gear for 18 years.”

Train said the “vertical lines” connecting Maine traps have a purple strip woven in, to identify them as coming from Maine lobster gear. He and Cushman said fishermen have taken a variety of other steps, using “weak rope” and installing special plastic links in their lines, so they will break if snagged and pulled by a whale.

However, two federal court rulings this summer have the lobster industry very worried.

 A federal judge ruled against the industry and the state of Maine earlier this month after they had filed a lawsuit to overturn the scientific opinion used by the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop the current right whale rules for fishermen. The state and the industry claimed the science behind the rule was invalid. That ruling has been appealed.

Earlier in the summer, the same judge ruled in favor of the Center for Biological Diversity, agreeing that more and tougher steps are needed to protect the whales. The lobster industry, the federal regulators, and the environmental groups are now waiting for the judge to set a timeline for new, more stringent rules to be imposed. That decision is expected in November or December. 

The NMFS declined an interview request, saying it could not answer questions because of the pending court action. It did provide a written statement, which reads, in part, “NOAA Fisheries uses peer-reviewed habitat-based marine mammal density models built by Duke University that are created based on systematic marine mammal surveys and correlated with oceanographic conditions. In addition to the right whale distribution model, in recent years, acoustic and visual detections have documented right whales in Maine waters. These data show that North Atlantic right whales occur in Maine waters. “

The state and the lobster industry, and members of Maine’s Congressional delegation, have been pressuring NMFS to provide them access to the data models used to determine the whale take rule.

The federal agencies have already stated they want to see a 90% reduction in risk to right whales, which will apparently mean more steps to reduce the number of ropes in the water they believe will entangle whales. Those measures could include smaller trap limits, more traps on a single buoy line or a requirement to use ropeless gear, a new technology that has a remote-controlled buoy sit on the ocean bottom, then pop to the surface at a signal so a lobster boat can grab an attached rope and haul the trap. Fishermen in Massachusetts and Maine have experimented with the ropeless gear, but the Maine lobstermen and the Maine DMR have both said the technology won’t be ready to use for some time.

Cushman and Train say the prospect of a 90% risk reduction, along with the Seafood Watch listing, could combine to devastate the industry and the coastal economy.

“The fishery is not going to look the same,” said Cushman. “If you think coastal communities will look the same with a 90 percent cut in the future, you’re absolutely wrong, the communities will start to die off and if you say that can’t happen, I think you’re wrong.

“These actions,” said Train, “ could turn these islands and peninsula towns into the equivalent of ’70s and '80s Allentown, Pennsylvania. This is the industry and they want it shut down.”

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