BAR HARBOR — Area lobstermen could lose valuable fishing grounds if a federal proposal to close four areas of Gulf of Maine waters comes to fruition.
The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) has drafted a plan that would close a span of 161 square miles offshore to commercial fishing in an effort to conserve deep-sea coral there.
Two of those areas, Mount Desert Rock in Lobster Management Zone B and Outer Schoodic Ridge in Lobster Management Zone A, are preferred fishing grounds for local fishermen when lobster head further offshore in the winter. The other proposed offshore closure areas lie in Jordan Basin and Lindenkohl Knoll to the south.
The Mount Desert Rock and Outer Schoodic Ridge areas are prime for lobster fishing, while Jordan Basin and Lindenkohl Knoll see a mix of groundfish, monkfish, pollock and lobster.
The NEFMC is working with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council to preserve deep-sea corals from the Canadian border to Virginia.
According to the NEFMC, the fragile and slow-growing corals are vulnerable to damage by fishing gear.
“While the extent of deep-sea coral habitat degradation has not been quantified in most areas, bottom tending fishing gear has been known to cause significant disturbance in many locations and is considered to be the major threat to deep-sea corals in areas where such fishing occurs,” read a recent NEFMC memorandum.
Fishermen must hold federal permits to fish in offshore waters. According to NEFMC data, 31 percent of Zone B fishermen hold federal permits.
In 2015, lobster landings in the Mount Desert Rock area generated $15 million of Zone B’s $71 million in landings for that year.
One local fisherman is concerned the closures would add more pressure to crowded Zone B waters, which is currently the setting of a territorial battle between fishermen in Zone B and neighboring Zone C.
Without the Mount Desert Rock and Outer Schoodic Ridge areas, fishermen would be pushed further east into Zone B, which is where the waters are reportedly the most crowded and contentious.
Both the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) oppose the possible closures.
MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron said the decision could affect the livelihoods of lobstermen.
“The MLA is very concerned about the potential closure of the coral zones off Mount Desert Rock and Schoodic Ridges. Both are extremely important fishing grounds, especially during the winter and spring months,” McCarron said in a statement. “Loss of either of these fishing areas would pose a huge economic hardship. And displacing lobstermen from these fishing grounds would in turn adversely impact many more lobstermen.
“The MLA will continue to work closely with Maine DMR and lobstermen to fight to keep these areas open to lobster fishing.”
The DMR has petitioned to exempt lobster gear from the NEFMC proposal. Lobstermen argue that their gear has been in deep-sea coral habitats for decades without damaging coral banks.
The NEFMC proposal will be up for discussion at the DMR Fisherman’s Forum in the spring. The draft amendment will be up for public hearing next spring, with final action slated for June.