PORTLAND — Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher sure knows how to quiet a room.
On April 5, about 100 members of the U.S. and Maine lobster industry — fishermen, dealers, scientists and regulators — gathered for the 15th Canadian-U.S. Lobstermen’s Town Meeting at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel in Portland. There they heard Keliher announce that he’d just received an email from NOAA Fisheries announcing that, in order to protect endangered right whales, “the U.S. fishery will likely have to be reduced 60 to 80 percent.”
It’s a testament to the cardiac health of Maine and Canadian lobstermen that the statement didn’t produce a mass heart attack, especially since it came during a discussion of what fishing restrictions might be imposed by NOAA Fisheries this spring to meet the demands of the federal Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts.
What almost everyone in the room heard, though, wasn’t all that Keliher said. Thanks to a snafu with the microphone, the audience missed the beginning of the NOAA statement that said “whale mortalities” from U.S. fisheries would have to be reduced by “60 to 80 percent,” not the fisheries themselves.
Keliher quickly clarified what NOAA said but cautioned listeners that even the correct message from NOAA was “still a serious problem.” That’s an understatement.
DMR had scheduled a series of meetings around the state this month to introduce lobstermen to the latest thinking on whale protection measures and solicit the industry’s reactions to the proposals.
Last week, Keliher cancelled the meetings because, he said, “the playing field kept changing in front of us” and DMR didn’t know what to consider with fishermen.
According to Keliher, consideration of “buoy-less fishing” was supposedly off the table because the technology needed to make it work in the real world, rather than in controlled experiments, was “at least five years out.” Instead, the federal Large Whale Take Reduction Team, scheduled to meet late this month, will supposedly have a buoy-less fishing proposal on its agenda.
While whales were the proverbial elephant in the room, they weren’t the only topic discussed at the Town Meeting hosted by the Maine Lobster Institute.
Opening the session Friday morning, Steward Lamont of Nova Scotia-based Tangier Lobster Co. and Scout Wuerthner of Atlanta-based Inland Seafood gave their take on the difficulties facing the lobster market in an era when tariffs and other trade issues have complicated the sale of lobsters to China. He discussed how the boom in that trade led Canadian dealers to skew prices and “hide” inventory.
In Canada, which regulates its lobster fishery, in part, by setting short seasons, Lamont said, dealers predicted on opening day last fall “there would be no lobsters.” But as the season continued “the catch was phenomenal.” That had real consequences.
“We ignored risk, currency, geopolitical,” he said. “We were riverboat gamblers,” he said, who paid extremely high prices for lobster to make sure dealers could meet demand from the Chinese market. The problem, though, was “China doesn’t love high prices,” so buyers reduced their demand and dealers were stuck with too much inventory.
Many lobstermen remain convinced that, even more than whale protection rules or international trade issues, a shortage of bait this year could force many of them to cut back on their fishing.
With the herring landings quota cut by 70 percent over last year, and 80 percent in the inshore Gulf of Maine where most of the lobster industry’s bait comes from, DMR is actively studying the possibility of allowing large-scale imports of Asian carp from Illinois as a partial replacement.
The department already has a “bait review team” that handles petitions from fishermen on a one-at-a-time basis to use non-traditional, imported bait, DMR scientist Nick Popoff said.
But the process is slow and the number of petitions has increased.
The key issue for DMR, Popoff said, was biosecurity — to ensure that imported bait didn’t bring invasive organisms — like the viruses that cause white spot disease or viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) into the Gulf of Maine where they are not currently present.
According to Popoff, Maine is the only state in the Northeast that has a formal bait health protection program in place.