OP-ED: Doing right by New England lobstermen

April 24 is Right Whale Day in Massachusetts. In one of his last acts as governor, Charlie Baker signed a proclamation that this day should (rightly) be set aside for the people to promote the preservation of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

In spring 2022, the Division of Marine Fisheries the Massachusetts coast played host to large aggregations of North Atlantic right whales. COURTESY PHOTO / MASSACHUSETTS DIVISION OF MARINE FISHERIES.

For the commercial lobsterman — not so much. In fact, about a month later, in February, another bill was referred by both houses of the state Legislature to the Joint Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, as one might expect for an endangered species.

When it comes out — if it does — S.552 will be more than a proclamation that lobstermen (and women and their families) have a right to co-exist, too. Its purpose is the establishment of a fund to provide financial assistance to lobstermen to mitigate the financial impacts of fishing area closures due to protection of endangered marine species. If it comes to pass, it will be known as the Lobstering Closure Mitigation Fund.

Should it happen, it may do something to redress a balance that in recent years seems to have swung disastrously against a way of life that has given this part of New England a lot of its history and character. In this event, we the people will be saying that while we love the right whale, it’s not right that lobstermen should be collateral damage in its fight to survive.

Area fishing closures up and down the northeast coast have been a powerful tool in conserving this weirdly beautiful large whale since 2014 — especially in Cape Cod Bay, where the whales have lingered longer than usual in 2023. Researchers worry that the clouds of copapods, the tiny plankton they feed on, are less abundant this year on the rest of their northern migration route to the Bay of Fundy and beyond.

Because of this, the fisheries arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration extended the Cape Cod Bay closure to May 7. They also reimposed a 2022 ban on all lobster trawls and gear on a wedge-shaped piece of inshore water extending roughly from Hull to Cape Ann for all of April.

That pushed the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association over the top. Having cooperated to the full with last year’s extensive new rules and having spent the previous winter splicing colorful gear markings into trap lines and adding new weak links that will break after 1,700 pounds of pressure, the MLA’s 1,800 members are digging even deeper in their pockets to go to court in a lawsuit that alleges government overreach and argues that the “wedge” is a place where the whales are not.

In 2020, a report from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute concluded that the lobster fishery may turn a higher profit by operating with less gear… and a shorter season. Yes and no, as it turned out. In 2021, the value of the lobster harvest in the state topped $800 million for the first time. Maybe it was just another consequence of COVID, but the actual take in 2022 fell by some 10% — and then came September.

California lobbed a hardball at New England when the Monterey Bay Aquarium “red-listed” American lobster caught on buoyed lines in the U.S. and Canada as unsustainably fished. Even Dan McKiernan, the normally mild-mannered director of Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries, boiled at what he called a “colossal mistake.” A month later, Whole Foods stopped selling all Maine lobster.

The value of lobster landed at the dock roughly halved last year to $4 a pound or even less, whereas fuel and gear costs were — you guess. November saw a federal judge order even tougher regulations on buoyed lines, but Congress later blocked NOAA from enforcing them until 2028. Conservationists and scientists feel the blow keenly.

Some lobstermen are not waiting to see their investments of several hundred thousand dollars in boats and gear fold. Massachusetts made history this February when it allowed a handful of fishermen using “whalesafe” remote release traps to fish in closed areas. The gear, which costs roughly $4,000 a unit, is essentially on a long loan from the federal government while it is being evaluated. It would be a truism to say that most New England lobstermen will have nothing to do with it.

What happens now? Worst case, the current laws prohibiting it change and small operators in Maine and Massachusetts are squeezed out by large concerns, as has happened in other fisheries. Some of our favorite neighbors could go bankrupt. Right whale numbers could make a seriously miraculous recovery, prompting a rethink. Or the federal government could come up with a lot more money. A lot more.

Marblehead’s Congressman Seth Moulton has been trying to squeeze anything out of the federal budget for lobstermen since before the pandemic. His latest effort, the Right Whale Coexistence Act of 2022, would pry loose $67 million over the next five years for competitive grants for projects to protect the whales, including the purchase of whalesafe gear. It’s in committee.

For a wider look at efforts to conserve the North Atlantic right whale and the social issues this raises, listen to Rhod Sharp’s BBC podcast, “The Song of the Right Whale.”

Rhod Sharp
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