by Stephen Rappaport and Liz Graves
AUGUSTA — Interstate fishery regulators are opting to wait and see how new rules aiming at protecting whales from fishing gear play out before deciding whether to add new ones of their own.
On Thursday, May 2, Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Commissioner Patrick Keliher announced that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) will delay imposing any whale protection rules to see whether measures likely to be adopted by NOAA Fisheries offer sufficient protection to endangered right whales.
Over the winter, DMR told fishermen that changes to fishing regulations aimed at protecting whales were likely to be coming on two tracks. Most of the rules to date have come from NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT), which operates under the auspices of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is also at work on a “biological opinion” on the status of right whales under the Endangered Species Act.
The ASMFC lobster management board had been considering imposing its own set of whale rules, in hopes that NMFS would take those efforts into account in the biological opinion.
NMFS administrators are requiring that right whale mortality and serious injury from lobster gear be reduced 60-80 percent, according to Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association.
Late in April, NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) recommended a 50 percent reduction in the number of vertical endlines (which connect lobster traps on the sea bottom to marker buoys on the surface) in the water. The TRT also called for the use of weaker rope, likely for the upper 75 percent, of the endlines that remain so that if whales swim into the rope it will break.
So the ASMFC lobster board, which met last week, decided not to add any additional restrictions on the fisheries for the time being.
“Due to the significant conservation benefits likely to be achieved by the measures the TRT has proposed, ASMFC has tabled any action and will wait to see if the risk to right whales has been fully addressed,” Keliher said.
“The outcome for Maine’s lobster industry could have been far worse,” he said.
Some members of the TRT had pushed for the use of “ropeless” lobster traps, closing large areas to lobster fishing — two of them in Maine — and requiring weak rope throughout the fishery.
“There is no feasible economic or operational model for ropeless fishing in Maine,” McCarron wrote in a letter to MLA members.
According to Keliher, Maine delegates to the TRT convinced the group that cuts in the number of traps in the water “do not result in significant conservation benefits for right whales,” so the TRT focused on other measures.
Over the next few weeks, DMR will prepare “a range of draft options” aimed at achieving the proposed conservation measures and still workable for fishermen. Keliher plans to hold a series of meetings, probably next month, to get input from fishermen on workable solutions. Nothing has changed for the 2019 fishing year, he said.
“These conversations will be difficult and sacrifices will be necessary,” Keliher wrote, adding that with input from lobstermen he was “confident” that it would be possible to develop “a plan that accomplishes the necessary conservation objectives and sustains Maine’s vital lobster industry.”