Hajna Nagy

I was five years old, opening my family’s refrigerator door in search of a juice box, when a live lobster fell out and started thrashing around on the floor. Naturally, I immediately screamed and ran out of the kitchen at the sight of this crustacean monster.

That was the first time I really put the pieces together of what my father did for a living. As a local Maine lobsterman, he would often bring home portions of his catch while I was growing up. I’m not sure if that would be the case now if he were still in the industry.

Even in the short span of my lifetime, the Maine fishing industry has faced new challenges as the world changes around us. From warmer waters due to climate change, to labor shortages from the COVID-19 pandemic, to new conservationist laws, lobstering has been riding a “boom-and-bust” roller coaster — the latest twist of which has been new restrictions on lobster harvesting that took effect May 1.

This includes everything from requiring a change of fishermen’s equipment to either rope-less technology or weaker rope and more relaxed knot placement, to blocking off a 950-mile area of the Gulf of Maine off-limits from October to January. Why the new, extensive rules, you may ask?

These regulations are an effort to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale populations, which are known to suffer fatal entanglement in current fishing gear. As the result of the federal government ruling that Maine is not doing enough to comply with the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammals Protection Act of 1972, these new rules are intended to save the whales from extinction.

Yet, what about the fishermen?


As there are currently less than 340 right whales left in the world, most can agree something needs to be done. But is this necessarily the most effective and least harmful way for all? I argue these new restrictions ultimately miss the mark in terms of the protection goals they intend to achieve, in reality doing more harm than good.

The lobster industry is Maine’s economic engine, supporting the men and women who fish as well as entire coastal communities. Imposing these restrictions limits their catch, not only taking away the opportunity for catch, but making it harder in the process.

They no longer have access to a large, critical area for fishing during a peak season.

And, there are new unsafe conditions for fishermen due to the material of the sinking, ground-line ropes that meet the new whale regulations, as they chafe and kink easier than sturdier poly rope.

Not to mention the high cost of implementation of these new technologies, which rack in at around $4,000 per trap.

Not only is this out-of-range price-wise for most local Maine, small business boats, but recent shortages of the specialized trap gear means fishermen can’t meet these standards in a timely manner even if they wanted to. All of these are examples of just how the new regulations actively inhibit Maine lobstermen — yet it would be worth it to save the whales, right?


This is where pro-whale regulation conservationists are wrong, however, as not all blame can be attributed to the Maine lobster fishing industry. In fact, not even most of it. Thus, the new protective policies put in place are, unfortunately, not even effectively achieving what they were meant to.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration claims over 50% of deaths of right whales are due to entanglements in “unknown fishing gear,” which they assign to Maine fisheries. However, this data is not necessarily accurate or fair. There are numerous other factors which are more responsible, such as ship strikes and — perhaps the biggest culprit — Canadian fisheries that have fewer conservative measures in place than the United States.

To give context, there have been 34 right whale deaths since June 2017, 21 of which have been in Canadian waters. Thus, as Maine Lobstermen Association Director Patrice McCarron explained in a press interview, “Even if the Maine lobster industry disappeared overnight, it wouldn’t be enough to stabilize the right whale population.”

The burden of the solution cannot, nor should it, rest solely on Maine fishermen and their communities. Doing so, in reality, is not beneficial for either party and causes more economic harm than good, essentially doing too much and achieving too little.

As I attempt to analyze this issue, grappling with the conflicting identities of being a fisherman’s daughter and an active environmentalist, I am beginning to wonder if the two have to be mutually exclusive.

In fact, doesn’t this “either/or” narrative contribute to the problem? Can’t we achieve both economic and environmental sustainability?

There is a way to protect both Maine fishermen and our natural environment, including right whales. And, if not, there should be.

Don’t set your own trap, Maine.

Hajna Nagy of Gardiner is a 2022 graduate of Bowdoin College. She has majored in environmental studies as well as government and legal studies, with a minor in gender, sexuality and women’s studies. 

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.