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Whale Conservation and Lobstering Can Go Hand in Hand

A juvenile North Atlantic right whale was found dead on Martha’s Vineyard after getting entangled in rope from Maine lobstermen. Whale advocates have since renewed calls to ban traditional lobstering gear as right whales are a critically endangered species. Unlike such sweeping, costly mandates, innovative technology and solutions could protect the whales while preserving lobstermen’s livelihoods.

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In storing carbon, distributing nutrients to new ecosystems, and contributing to a $2.5 billion global whale-watching industry, right whales are critical to marine ecosystems. Overall, at least 86% of right whales have encountered an entanglement, and although Maine lobstermen claim no right whale has been entangled in their gear since 2004, less than 2% of entanglements actually get traced back to a specific state. Concerned about this threat, the Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch withdrew their stamps of approval for Maine lobster, Whole Foods pulled Maine lobster from their shelves, and whale advocates have pushed the government to mandate ropeless fishing gear.

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With traditional gear, lobstermen drop traps to the ocean floor with a rope for retrieval. With ropeless gear, lobstermen press a button to recover traps, at which point a balloon inflates and pulls them to the surface. As climate change forces right whales into new migration patterns, ropeless gear offers a more permanent solution than the seasonal restrictions currently on the books, where a surprise visitor can easily get entangled. Ropeless gear also promises to improve safety, avoid lobstermen laying over each other’s gear, and locate lost traps. 

Yet, as straightforward as a rope ban sounds, enacting one would be a nightmare. A Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries analysis revealed the state fishery would lose $40 million in annual revenue if they completely transitioned to ropeless — from profitable to deep in the red. This cost reflects both the expense of new equipment and the fact that today’s ropeless gear takes nearly twice as long to haul up a trap, thus reducing productivity. Rightly or wrongly, lobstermen also question the technology’s user-friendliness or reliability with no phone service out at sea, and necessity when they personally haven’t entangled a whale.

Beyond concerns about ropeless gear’s viability, Maine lobstermen understandably don’t want the government telling them what to do. Rather than being ostracized by the environmental community, they want to be part of the solution. That’s why whale lovers should advocate for innovative solutions to preserve lobstermen’s freedom, accelerate ropeless gear’s development, and save the whales — all at the same time.

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If a ropeless ban became law, history suggests Maine’s lobster industry would spend years delaying it in court. They are currently suing the federal government for a far less draconian electronic monitoring requirement; they recently sued Seafood Watch for defamation; and their bait suppliers in the herring industry are awaiting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, where a potential government overreach prompted a case that may gut the power of all federal agencies. If a rope ban led to a drawn-out courtroom battle, critically endangered right whales would continue facing entanglements for years, and the issue would only turn more divisive.

To truly become viable, ropeless fishing gear needs to be in the best economic interest of the lobster industry, which will be achieved by competition, not mandates. It takes the trial and error afforded by a challenging scale-up to solve problems, lower costs, and grow industry support for the technology. But accomplishing that goal requires that lobstermen use the equipment, and today, many lobstermen refuse to try. Some even insult, threaten, or sabotage colleagues who partake.

That’s where policy can help. Governments could offer streamlined permitting for new lobstermen who go ropeless, via a one-stop approval process or directing agencies to give ropeless businesses priority. They could reduce barriers to these equipment upgrades by lifting seasonal restrictions for ropeless businesses, giving them the sea to themselves. Or they could offer grants to purchase ropeless equipment with accelerated depreciation — an accounting maneuver that would allow lobstermen to more quickly write off the expense of the equipment, thus reducing their taxable income and leaving them more money to reinvest into their business. These strategies could accelerate the development of ropeless without imposing blanket bans.

If lobstermen feel secure that the government won’t shove a ban down their throats and instead rely on ropeless incentives, they may be more inclined to participate in existing solutions as well. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration already works with lobstermen to trial ropeless fishing gear in federal waters that are otherwise closed to lobstering. These partnerships ensure lobstermen can have their comments heard — a crucial step for ropeless manufacturers as they work to improve their designs. Many lobstermen refuse to participate due to the aforementioned stigmas, but with the threat of a ban off the table, perhaps more lobstermen would feel inclined to participate and provide their expertise.

The private sector could help too. Pew Charitable Trusts polling found 84% of East Coast lobster eaters would pay more for lobster caught by ropeless equipment. If organizations like the Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch certify individual businesses instead of entire state fisheries, ropeless lobster could find its way onto Whole Foods’ shelves, sell at a premium at restaurants and supermarkets, and earn free positive press.

As a New Englander who loves both our whales and lobster rolls, I want opportunities that incentivize cooperation rather than contention. Win-win policies that incentivize innovation and lower the costs of new technologies will empower the lobstermen to pursue their livelihoods while protecting the whales.  

Ethan Brown is a Writer and Commentator for Young Voices with a B.A. in Environmental Analysis & Policy from Boston University. He is the creator and host of The Sweaty Penguin, an award-winning comedy climate program presented by PBS/WNET’s national climate initiative “Peril and Promise.” Follow him on Twitter @ethanbrown5151.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

Copyright © 2020 Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions

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