STATEWIDE — The fate of the Maine lobster industry and conservationists’ effort to save the right whale are on a collision course. Numerous businesses related to the industry also rely on the fishery to fuel their success. They too now worry about the future.
“It trickles down. It’s not just the boat shop. It’s car dealerships, the bank, bait dealers. It’s everything related to fishing,” said Nick Lemieux-owner the owner of Little River Boat Shop.
In a letter to NOAA, Governor Janet Mills said “The roughly half billion dollars generated in ex vessel revenue from the fishery generates an additional one billion in indirect economic impact…All these businesses face a deeply uncertain future as a result of the proposed 98 percent risk reduction.”
“Ten percent by number of our individual business customers are in the shellfish industry. So it’s a pretty significant number of folks in our portfolio that would directly impact our business,” said Larry Barker, President and CEO of Machias Savings Bank.
Maine’s famed restaurant industry could see a serious dip in availability of one of the state’s most coveted menu items and a drop in diners as a result.
Hospitality Maine’s Director of Government Affairs Greg Dugal said “Whatever is devastating to them will be devastating to us.”
Dugal says Maine’s restaurant industry was a $3 billion enterprise before the coronavirus pandemic hit and recovery could take years.
“We can’t afford to not have any of the amount of business we’ve had in the past in the next few years because people are going to need to be digging out of the holes that the pandemic created,” Dugal said.
Proposed gear modifications pose a financial risk for fisherman. They include weak points for rope so whales can break free more easily if they get tangled and putting more traps on a single line. Lobstermen and officials say NOAA’s plan also seems to call for large scale conversion to ropeless fishing technology, which they say has not been sufficiently tested and is not well suited to the conditions they fish in.
“All the tests that I have seen, all the videos of it, are when the water is nice and calm. It’s a nice sunny day. There’s two or three people. I fish with one stern man. I haul 800 traps with one guy,” John Drouin, a 3rd generation lobsterman.
They also say the technology could cost fishermen hundreds of thousands of dollars, something they can’t afford.
“There won’t be individual business owners, small businessmen or young guys fishing a small amount of traps it’s going to be large vessels with a lot of investment that drive everyone else out,” Kristan Porter, Maine Lobstermen’s Association board president.
“While ropeless fishing gear may not be ready for prime time now, there’s never going to be the impetus to change to it if the agency doesn’t mandate that transition start happening,” Kristen Monsell, the Oceans Legal Director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Keliher says one of his greatest frustrations is not having a seat at the table for key conversations with Canada.
“We’ve been denied. Canada, when I spoke to a very high ranking Canadian official was more than willing to have us at the table. But the us government has denied us access to those meetings,” Keliher said.
NOAA denied our request for an interview but offered information. The agency says they’re working with Canada too. In a January online message, NOAA fisheries assistant administrator Chris Oliver said quote we urged Canada to develop a similar goal and appropriate risk reduction measures to achieve it.
“We need to be getting all of these measures on board now not a decade from now,” Monsell said.
“You got to have it right. I mean you can’t just say we need to save the North Atlantic Right Whale at all costs. We need to save the North Atlantic Right Whale with measured approaches that are meaningful where they need to be made,” Keliher said.
NOAA must issue a final version of their draft biological opinion, which includes the conservation framework, by May 31st.