As Bay State observes first Right Whale Day, struggle for lobstermen continues

As Massachusetts observed its inaugural North American Right Whale Day on April 24, the lobster industry, regulators and conservationists remain at odds over how to protect the critically-endangered species.

The federal government has deemed lobstermen’s fishing gear a real threat to right whales.

 Illustration of how North Atlantic right whales get entangled in fishing gear. Entangled whales can tow fishing gear for tens to hundreds of miles over months or even years, before either being freed, shedding the gear on their own, or succumbing to their injuries. COURTESY PHOTO / WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION

Right whales are baleen whales, eating tiny crustaceans by straining immense volumes of ocean water through their sieve-like baleen plates, according to the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The right whale population has dropped to around 350, and federal wildlife authorities warn that the species faces extinction in the near future.

Marblehead resident Rhod Sharp spent two years reporting on the conflict between lobstermen and right whale conservation efforts. That effort culminated in a six-hour series called “The Song of the Right Whale,” published by BBC Sounds.

Sharp said right whales are prone to “entanglement in the fixed lines that fishermen use to position the buoys which let them find the lobster trawls they have placed on the seabed.”

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution showed for the first time how fishing lines changed a whale’s diving and swimming behavior:  “Fishing gear hinders whales’ ability to eat and migrate, depletes their energy as they drag gear for months or years and can result in a slow death.”

Marblehead resident and lobsterman Ray Bates wants to find a balance, but he blames tight regulations for the abysmal state of the lobster industry.

“This is the worst season in 38 years economically for me and everybody else,” he told the Marblehead Current. “We’re not just lobstermen. We’re fathers. We’re husbands. We’re daughters. We’re people who are trying to make a living and support our families.”

The right whale may be familiar because their endangered status makes them newsworthy, and they are annually sighted in North Shore and Cape Cod waters. Late 19th-century whalers brought the right whale to the cusp of extinction, and they’ve never been able to fully recover.

The lobster industry is a significant source of employment in Massachusetts, but like the right whale, lobstermen numbers are in peril. The number of licensed lobstermen in Massachusetts went from approximately 1,100 to 800 in 2022. That doesn’t include other jobs such as lobster processing, distribution and sales built around the industry.

In 2019, Massachusetts lobstermen landed around 17.7 million pounds of lobster. That accounts for about 8% of the total U.S. lobster caught and sold and has a value of $82 million.

The laws governing right whales and lobstermen off the coast of Massachusetts primarily fall under the jurisdiction of the NOAA and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF).

Lobstermen follow regulations aimed at protecting the right whales, as challenging as they may be.

These regulations focus on protecting the right-whale population while managing the lobster fishery sustainably.

Key state and federal regulations include seasonal closures of certain areas, mandatory gear modifications to reduce entanglement risks, speed restrictions, reporting and monitoring requirements and established response teams to address whale entanglements.

A centerpiece regulation is a moratorium on lobstermen fishing in waters that right whales use during migration in the winter months. This puts a strain on lobstermen financially, and Bates believes that they should be compensated appropriately for the time that they are sidelined.

“We’ve been down for five months for the third year in a row for right whale closures. We have not been compensated for this, either by the state or federal government. This is five months of small business out of business because of government regulations here with no compensation,” he added.

Outside NOAA and DMF regulations, Sharp said lobstermen struggle with volatile costs.

“The landed price of lobster in Maine and Massachusetts in 2022, which collapsed from about $8 per pound in 2021 to roughly half that in 2022 while diesel prices went the other way,” said Sharp. “That price was heavily impacted when the Monterey Bay Aquarium placed Maine Lobster on its ‘red lists’ of unsustainably caught shellfish and Whole Foods withdrew Maine lobster from sales.”

State Rep. Jenny Armini, Democrat of Marblehead, believes in finding a solution and striking the right balance, but the solution doesn’t come without difficulty. She wants to help sustain the 25 or so lobstermen who remain in Marblehead.

“Lobstermen are very important to the identity of our community,” said Armini. “They provide us with food, but they are very much part of the traditions and the rich history of our community.”

Armini is a co-sponsor of a bill that would provide compensation to lobstermen for the time they are forced out of the water to protect the right whales. She noted the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission sent checks of up to $3,500 to lobstermen to offset the expense of the gear modifications required by the 2021 North Atlantic Right Whale protections.

Bates notes that he cannot go out and find a new job. “Somebody’s got to be able to do something because they can’t even put us on unemployment. There are 800 of us in Massachusetts,” said Bates. “I’m 70 years old. It’s tough for me to go out and find a job now.”

Armini pointed out one idea that is taking a foothold. “We need to continue to investigate the idea of ropeless lobster traps,” she said. “I’m thrilled Congress has been willing to put some money into that.”

While it is a promising technology, Sharp notes the costs are prohibitive.

“Whalesafe and ropeless traps use a remote release, triggered by a smartphone or tablet operating a transponder that is carried on the boat and another on the seabed,” he said. “Trouble is, the price of one remote release unit to hook up to a conventional trawl of 10 or 12 traps stays stubbornly stuck at somewhere approaching $4,000 with little prospect of economies of scale kicking in.”

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