ELLSWORTH — As the battle over how best to protect endangered northern right whales continues to escalate, the Department of Marine Resources is proposing a new set of requirements for lobster gear that the department believes will help reduce injury to the whales without imposing severe, and some say dangerous, restrictions on fishermen.
Last week, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher announced that after “rigorous scientific analysis,” the department had come up with a new draft plan to address “both the risk to right whales and concerns of fishermen” that is “in keeping with the real risk the Maine fishery presents.”
Last March, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that the risk of injuries to right whales in the Gulf of Maine had to be reduced by at least 60 percent.
To meet that goal, a group of fishermen, scientists and conservation group representatives known as the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team recommended that NMFS require Maine lobstermen to reduce the number of vertical lines used to connect their traps to the surface marker buoys by 50 percent.
The NMFS proposal was based on a scientific model that ostensibly showed the restrictions to be necessary to meet the 60 percent risk reduction goal.
In June, Keliher met with lobstermen up and down the coast to explain the proposed rule that would require most lobstermen to “trawl up” and connect more traps on longer strings to each vertical endline. In the waters farthest from land, the rules would have required boats to fish trawls of 40 traps or even more.
The proposals provoked outrage among Maine lobstermen. They argued that the science on which the proposed rules were based was flawed. Fishermen who had lobstered for decades claimed never to have seen a right whale, especially in Maine’s nearshore waters. They also argued that the requirement to fish large trawls from the mostly small boats with small crews used in the state’s lobster fishery would likely lead to serious injuries and even deaths.
During the summer, at the direction of Governor Janet Mills, DMR undertook its own study and assessment of the risk Maine lobster gear posed to whales. At the end of August, the Maine delegation to the Take Reduction Team withdrew their support from the “near-consensus plan” the group produced in April.
Last week, Keliher announced a new draft plan.
“Our goal was to develop a plan that was protective of right whales, but is also protective of the economic prosperity of Maine fishermen, and more importantly, for their safety,” Keliher, who manages the state’s $485 million lobster industry, told the Portland Press Herald. “We can do that by addressing the risk where it actually occurs.”
He plans to meet with lobstermen in Ellsworth, Waldoboro and South Portland early next month to explain the plan and get input from fishermen before presenting the Maine proposal to NMFS later in November.
In essence, the DMR proposal includes less stringent requirements for lobstermen to trawl up, especially in waters close to shore.
Landwards of an “exemption line” established years ago by NMFS that is more or less the same as the three-mile line that marks the limits of state-controlled waters, there would be no minimum number of traps per vertical line. About two-thirds of Maine’s licensed lobstermen fish mostly inside the exemption line.
Slightly farther offshore, between the exemption line and the three-mile line where the two diverge, the minimum trawl size would be three traps, although lobstermen would be free to fish more.
From three to six miles offshore, fishermen would have a choice of eight-trap trawls with two vertical endlines or four-trap trawls with a single line.
Between six and 12 miles offshore, the minimum trawl size would be 16 traps. From 12 miles out to the boundary of federal Lobster Management Area 1 — about 50 miles offshore — the minimum would be 24 traps per trawl.
The DMR proposal also includes required weak links in vertical lines to allow whales to break free if they become entangled in lobster gear. One link would be required inside three miles. Two links, one near the buoy and the other halfway down the line, would be required for gear set outside the three mile line.
Two key elements of the proposed DMR rule have less to do with whale protection than the effort to determine with some certainty whether the fishing gear that unquestionably entangles many whales comes from the Maine lobster fishery. That question grows more pressing as the demand for stronger protective measures increases.
NMFS is being sued currently in federal court for what the plaintiffs say is the agency’s failure to enact strict whale protection rules in a timely way, while some evidence shows that endangered right whales have largely abandoned the Gulf of Maine to follow their preferred food sources east into Canadian waters.
Under the DMR proposal, all vertical lines in all areas would include a 36-inch purple mark in their upper 12 feet that would only be used on Maine lobster gear. Currently, gear from several Atlantic Coast states carry the same markings so it is impossible to tell what fishery the lines on entangled whales actually comes from.
In addition to the revised marking requirements, the DMR proposal calls, depending on the availability of funding “from other sources,” for all lobster harvesters to provide detailed monthly reports on when and where they set their gear.
The rule also would extend electronic vessel monitoring — now required on boats that hold permits to fish for species other than lobster in federal waters — to all federally permitted lobster boats.
In a letter sent to members of the lobster industry last week, Keliher scheduled three 5 p.m. meetings for lobstermen: Monday Nov. 4, at The Grand in Ellsworth; Tuesday, Nov. 5, in the gym of the Medomak Middle School in Waldoboro; and Wednesday, Nov. 6, in the South Portland High School auditorium.