The livelihood for many fishermen has been changed irrevocably by the severe depletion of fish stocks around the globe over the past several decades.
For lobstermen in the Northeast and Atlantic Canada, however, their resource has thrived, thanks in part to the trap-and-buoy method that has been the dominant mode of lobster fishing for more than a century.
Scientists have discovered in recent years that the system is remarkably inefficient, with as much as 90 percent of lobsters that enter any given trap safely walking out again before the trap is hauled to the surface.
But despite record hauls in the past decade and the relatively robust state of the lobster resource, lobstermen are facing a significant challenge to the way they have plied their trade.
The effect of their gear on endangered whales, which were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 20th century and are protected under federal law, is the broader subject of federal lawsuits filed recently in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
Environmentalists are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service for allegedly not doing enough to protect the whales, and have even targeted a Massachusetts lobsterman whose legal gear was found last year wrapped around a humpback whale that survived after being freed.
Lobstermen in Maine, where 80 percent of the lobsters caught in the United States are brought ashore, are adamant that for the vast majority of them their gear is not a problem because it is not placed where whales are found. Thats why lobstering organizations are banding together to raise money for a legal defense.
"You cant pin it all on the lobsterman," Mike Dassatt of Downeast Lobstermens Association said Sunday. "Were doing everything weve been asked to do."
DELA is donating $5,000 to the fundraising effort, which is being led by the Maine Lobstermens Association, the largest commercial fishermens organization in the state. The Southern Maine Lobstermens Association also is supporting the effort.
"Maine Lobstermens Association opposes these [anticipated] regulations because they are excessive, are not based on science and do not demonstrably reduce entanglement risk to whales," MLA indicates in a statement on its Web site.
At issue is a type of rope called float rope, which is used between traps that lie along the ocean bottom in a line. At either end of the trap line, or "string," is a rope that is tied to a buoy at the surface, so lobstermen can find and then haul their traps back onto their boats.
Float rope rises off the ocean bottom in loops to prevent the gear from getting snared on the rocky ocean floor, which fishermen say is the predominant type of ocean bottom east of southern Maine.
The problem with the system is that whales are believed to get tangled in the gear when they dive to the bottom to feed, swimming under the loops and getting their fins caught in the rope as they pass through.
What whale advocates want is for lobstermen to use sink rope, which as its name implies sinks to the bottom where whales cannot swim underneath it. But lobstermen say sink rope costs twice as much and is more likely to get caught on bottom and lost to the sea, where it could cause other problems.
"They dont feed on rocky bottom," Dassatt said of the endangered whales. "Give us the proof these whales are there. [Sink rope] jeopardizes other fisheries. It creates more mess of ghost-gear fishing."
Lobstermen claim that if they are forced to use sink rope, many of them will be forced out of business. And this could mean an end to a way of life that has sustained people on the Maine coast for hundreds of years, they have said. For many communities, especially for those on offshore islands, the lobster industry is the only thing that keeps them viable 12 months a year.
Sharon Young of the Humane Society of the United States said Thursday that the legal focus of a lawsuit filed against NMFS by her organization and the Ocean Conservancy is more about government deadlines than what kind of gear lobstermen can use.
She said that federal law requires NMFS to amend fishing regulations when they are found to be ineffective at protecting whales. Since a female right whale died in 2002 after getting caught in lobster fishing gear, NMFS has not taken the proper steps to update its regulations, she said. The deadline for doing so was 17 months ago.
"They still have not done anything to amend the plan," Young said. "Our lawsuit is entirely focused on the fact that they are overdue in releasing the rules."
The environmental groups view the issue of what kind of new regulations the federal fisheries service might adopt as an entirely different matter, according to Young.
"Whether we will like what is in it or not, I cant say," she said.
Young said evidence indicates float rope in Maine waters poses a threat to whales. There are only about 350 right whales left in the north Atlantic, she said, so the loss of even one female is detrimental to the future of the whole population.
"We know they go into Maine state waters," Young said. "We know they get entangled in the float rope."
If the lobster industry wanted to change and find another viable way to catch lobster without threatening whales, she said, it could.
"Its not something thats impossible," Young said. "Its something that requires a change in thinking."
Mary Colligan, division chief for protected resources at the regional NMFS in Gloucester, Mass., declined Friday to comment directly on the lawsuit. She did say that changing fishing regulations is complicated and requires a lot of research and consultation. Late summer or early fall of this year is the earliest the new rules might be issued, she said.
"We are moving as quickly as we think we can," Colligan said. "It does take a while to move through the process."
George Lapointe, commissioner for Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Friday that DMR has not filed for intervenor status in the lawsuit against NMFS because it is not concerned about the agencys rule-making deadline.
"Were interested in the substance of the rules," he said. "When the issue is about substance, we may do that."
Lapointe acknowledged that the issue of what kind of gear fishermen can use has enormous implications for Maines 7,000 licensed commercial lobstermen. Last year, an estimated 66 million pounds of lobster worth $272 million was caught in Maine.
"We want to protect endangered species and we want to protect our lobster industry as well," Lapointe said. "Our lobster industry is hugely important to the state."