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As the legal battle continues, lobstermen fear new federal closure could hurt industry long-term

New federal restrictions to protect the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale went into effect earlier this month following a judge's order.

STONINGTON, Maine — It's 3:30 a.m., and Richard Larabee Jr. and his crew are headed to work off Stonighton's iconic fish pier. 

Lunch coolers in hand, the men board a skiff to get to their moored office-at-sea F/V Rock Bottom. Once onboard, his stern men gear up for the grueling 12-hour day ahead. 

"It's going to be a good day!" Larabee said as he fired up the boat.

Despite his positivity, the catch isn't all that's on his mind. The battle over new federal restrictions designed to save the endangered North Atlantic right whale is far from settled. 

It has been just over a week since at least 150 lobstermen had to get their traps out of a nearly 1,000-square-mile swath of the Gulf of Maine following a judge's order.

"It's too bad that Maine fishermen are really getting a bad rap," Larabee said. "They're all stressed. They've been pushed back. Where do you go?"

On this day, he and his two-man crew are fishing just outside of LMA 1, the zone now closed to fishing from October 18 through January 31 each year. 

Some, including the state's lobster unions, have claimed the closure by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration falls during the peak fishing season. 

According to data from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, lobstermen statewide hauled most consistently from July-October last year. They brought in a whopping 20 million pounds in October at peak, before numbers steadily fell back down through January.

DMR officials estimate the closure will have a $2 to $4 million impact on fishermen alone.

"We think the agency should have done even more," Kristen Monsell, with the Center for Biological Diversity, said.  

The organization took legal action to try and force the federal government to take more aggressive action to save the whales nationwide. According to NOAA, there are fewer than 360 North Atlantic right whales remaining on the planet. 

NOAA scientists said the biggest threats to the North Atlantic right whales are ship strikes and entanglements.

According to experts, right whales swim into lines connected the buoy to the lobster traps on the ocean floor. The animal can spin into the traps, only getting stuck more, and sometimes drag the gear for miles. 

In many cases, they say, it causes serious injury and even death. 

"Getting gear out of important whale habitat will save whales and help promote the recovery of this incredibly imperiled species," Monsell said. 

Most lobstermen opposed to the restrictions question just how many right whales are even off Maine's coast. 

NOAA says tracking them isn't easy. However, maps showing sightings by air and water from 2013-2017 show a large number of them off the coast of Massachusetts and New Brunswick, while fewer appear to be directly in the Gulf of Maine where the closure zone is. 

When asked how many entanglements happen because of Maine-based lobster gear, Monsell said it isn't clear. 

"We don't know where the vast majority of entanglements occur, and that's for a number of different reasons," she said. "What we do know is these whales are dying. The species is spiraling towards extinction, entanglements are the number one cause, and there are tons and tons of lines in these important habitat areas."

A spokesperson for NOAA declined NEWS CENTER Maine's request for an interview citing ongoing litigation. 

However, they did release written statements concerning how they determined the closure zone. 

"Because we lack information on exactly where interactions occur, we use areas of high co-occurrence of right whales and fishing gear as a way to identify areas of high entanglement potential. We also consider the type of gear in determining the risk of a serious entanglement that would cause mortality or serious injury. The seasonal restricted areas we put in place recently are based on hotspots, areas with high current and historic habitat use by North Atlantic right whales, high fishing gear density, and high configuration threat.

The LMA 1 Restricted Area was based on the Decision Support Tool, including the right whale density model that predicts higher buoy line densities and risk co-occurring with right whale densities and causing higher risk to right whales relative to other regions. The LMA 1 Restricted Area also represents a hotspot within the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab trap/pot fishery, where overlap between gear and whales is particularly high."

A NOAA spokesperson said its Office of Law Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard are responsible for enforcing the zone closure. That will be done on and off the water, including using monitoring technology. 

"This is an issue that really needs to be addressed," Zack Klyver said. 

Klyver, who runs Blue Planet Strategies, is among those who say the solution is to get fishermen to use ropeless gear. 

His Bar Harbor-based company is currently testing the gear with about a half-dozen Maine fishermen.

"We see this as a tremendous opportunity," Klyver said. 

The systems essentially work by using wireless technology to signal gear to the surface, ultimately cutting down or even eliminating vertical lines.

The problem: It is expensive, and many lobstermen say it just will not work in deep water.

Klyver said the trials are showing incredibly promising results, though. And with more federal support he said the technology could be used more widely.

"If we can bring the cost down and continue to work with them, then they're guaranteed to be able to fish, and we'll save the whales," he said.

Back aboard Rock Bottom, Larabee and his crew are wrapping up their long day at sea with a weigh-in.

This 12-hour day brought in lobsters from some 400 traps, but he said there are another 400 he is unable to fish because of the new restrictions. 

He fears it could ultimately have a big impact on him, and the industry as a whole, for years to come. 

"If the law made sense, I think fishermen would be fine with it. But it makes zero sense," Larabee said. "It's not just my living I'm worried about."

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