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Maine Seeks to Aid Lobstermen as Federal Whale Protections Loom

Data shows that 400 or right whales make their way through the Gulf of Maine, according to a Maine's marine resources commissioner, who isn't surprised most lobstermen haven't seen them

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Maine is making its voice heard as a federal effort to stop right whales from dying takes shape.

On Friday, the state's Department of Marine Resources released a plan it says protects the endangered whales and lobstermen, whom the feds say need to do more to prevent traps and lines from killing the whale.

Maine's suggestions include having lobstermen use ropes with weak points the whales could easily break and calls for a 25% reduction in the amount of vertical trap lines.

"It's been a really difficult process, no question about it," said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine's DMR. "We spent a lot of time with the industry, we made some people happy and some people mad."

Local lobstermen aren’t happy about new federal regulations aimed at protecting endangered right whales. But whale scientists say the move is key to saving the whales and is important for the health of the ocean. Scott Kraus, right whale scientist and VP and senior advisor chief scientist for Marine Mammal Conservation at the New England Aquarium, joins Sue to discuss.

The populations of North Atlantic right whales were decimated during the whaling era generations ago, and today they face threats including entanglement in commercial fishing equipment, ship strikes and climate change.

Keliher says data clearly shows that 400 or right whales make their way through the Gulf of Maine, though he's not surprised most lobstermen haven't seen them, one of their arguments against new rules.

"They're correct to the point they're not seeing right whales but we know they have to swim through the Gulf of Maine," Keliher said.

A number of lobstermen say that, despite state efforts to find compromise, the concessions they're being asked to make are still too much.

"The one thing in the lobster industry that keeps me up at night is the whale issue," said Kristan Porter, a lobsterman and President of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

Porter says the changes to accommodate whales are more of a stress to his organization than a recent bait shortage, smaller hauls and tariffs from China.

A big change could be in the works for New England lobstermen thanks to new regulations designed to protect endangered right whales.

To that end, the group is planning to develop its own right whale proposal that Porter believes will be ready soon.

"We sent out a poll to our members to try and get feedback," he said.

"We'll sit down with our board and come up with a plan that we think meets the needs of the state lobster fishery."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service will review Maine's submission along with proposals from other New England states and will determine whether those measures reach the risk reduction target for right whales, said Kate Swails, agency spokeswoman.

As for when a final plan agreed on by federal and state officials and lobstermen, if there ever is one, becomes the law, that remains unclear.

The Maine Lobstermen's Association does hope to have its draft plan ready in the coming months.

NBC/Associated Press
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