BAR HARBOR — When a lobster management council here voted last month to change the maximum allowed number of traps on a trawl in part of the territory they represent, they thought they were off and running and that a public hearing for a new Department of Marine Resources proposed rule reflecting the change would be scheduled soon.
They learned differently at a special Zone B Council meeting Dec. 20 at Mount Desert Island High School called by DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher to discuss the issue. Changing requirements for the number of traps on a trawl, he said, requires sending a referendum vote to all the fishermen with licenses in the zone, according to state law.
“If I was going to just say ‘no'” to the proposal, Keliher said, “I wouldn’t have called a meeting. I’m not here to second guess a unanimous vote of this council. But when it came to me, I wanted to make sure the issue is fully vetted so there are no surprises.”
Zone B stretches from the southernmost end of Newbury Neck to Schoodic Point and out past the boundary between state- and federally-managed waters and past Mount Desert Rock.
The proposal is to allow a maximum of five traps on a trawl in more of that area, south to a straight line marked at 675 in the LORAN navigation system. Currently, longer trawls are allowed there, and federal whale protection rules mandate a five-trap minimum in some of it.
Some Islesford and Northeast Harbor fishermen who fish longer trawls in the area oppose the change. Peter Philbrook wrote to the council ahead of the November meeting saying he switched to longer trawls to avoid losing traps to cruise ships. “If I were fishing fives, I would have had even more end lines in the water and my losses would’ve been even greater.”
He’s also concerned, he wrote, about fishermen moving to the east or west if the change is adopted, creating more crowding in other areas and gear loss to the herring fleet.
Some of the November meeting was spent in spur-of-the-moment breakout groups, with fishermen gathered around charts to discuss fishing practices in different areas. Philbrook proposed a compromise in which a five-trap maximum could be adopted to the east of Mount Desert Rock but not to the west of a line running north-south near Columbia Ledge.
The referendum will not include that proposal, though, and will ask Zone B fishermen whether they are in favor of a five-trap maximum all the way to the 675 line.
Part of the issue, many contended, is increased fishing activity in the offshore parts of Zone B by fishermen registered in Zone A and Zone C. Fishermen are allowed to fish up to 49 percent of their traps in an adjacent zone.
“Five or six years ago, there were 30,000 ‘C’ traps in Zone B,” council Chair David Horner said. “Last year, there were 60,000. If that hadn’t happened, it’s very possible we wouldn’t be here talking about Steve [Philbrook’s] trawls.”
Starting this year, council member Richard Howland said, Zone A fishermen also will be required to apply for tags to fish in Zone B. That will give the DMR better data about fishing effort in the area.
Bills to limit double tagging (the practice of fishing in an adjacent zone) have floundered in the legislature several times, most recently this past March.
“There’s a thousand ways for bills not to be successful,” Rep. Brian Hubbell said. “The ones that are successful are the ones where people have done the groundwork ahead of time and been able to build consensus. Now’s the time to have those conversations,” he said, with Keliher, fishermen in other zones and organizations like the Maine Lobsterman’s Association.
“We really need to get it right this time,” Howland said after the meeting.