TRENTON — The North Atlantic right whale remains critically endangered. Since entanglement with rope from fishing gear is one of the threats to the population, major changes are coming down the pike for the Maine lobster industry.
Those changes are unlikely to be popular with lobstermen.
“Feel free to yell at me,” Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), told a packed gym at the Trenton Elementary School Tuesday. “But it’s the federal government that’s driving the bus here.”
Keliher was in Trenton for the first in a series of meetings with lobstermen up and down the coast to discuss specific ways for the lobster fishery to meet targets established in April by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT), which works under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Plans include a 50 percent reduction in the number of endlines, the ropes connecting lobster traps on the seafloor to buoys on the surface, and the use of weaker rope on those lines.
The fishery needs to achieve a 60 percent reduction in risk to the whales, as calculated by a risk tool developed by federal regulators. Because of the high stakes for the lobster industry, Maine’s congressional delegation has called for additional scientific review of the risk tool.
New regulations will likely not go into effect until 2021, Keliher said, unless one of three ongoing lawsuits filed by conservation groups results in a court order to speed up the timeline.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Keliher said the state of Maine “continues to reserve the right to file a lawsuit” if the final rules from federal regulators “go far beyond where we think we need to go.” He said his office has carefully built a record of its findings and actions.
In 2017 and 2018, 20 right whale deaths were documented, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data. The cause of eight of those deaths couldn’t be determined. Seven were known or suspected to be from entanglement with fishing gear and five were from ship strikes. Nine were in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, three in Newfoundland, seven in Massachusetts and one in Virginia.
It’s not just deaths that regulators are worried about. Eighty-five percent of right whales show signs of having been entangled, and the birth rate for the species, while better so far in 2019 than last year, remains far below a healthy number.
The whales’ feeding patterns are changing, too, said Mike Sargent, a Steuben lobsterman who serves on the TRT. The copepods, planktonic crustaceans that are the right whales’ primary food, are now congregating in pockets. One of those is “right below Mount Desert Rock,” he said. He likened the whales’ unpredictable movements to driving around a town where most of the restaurants are closed, looking for somewhere to get dinner.
Right whales have been sighted quite close to the Maine coast, said Erin Summers, who leads the whale take reduction efforts for DMR, and acoustic tools have detected right whales in the Gulf of Maine year-round.
It’s been difficult to determine where Maine lobster gear is set in relation to where the whales are, Keliher said. Currently the DMR only collects information from 10 percent of lobster license holders on their trap configurations and how far their gear is set from shore.
“Not having that information makes it difficult in these conversations on whales,” he said. A move that was already in the works toward 100 percent harvester reporting is being fast-tracked. It will be expensive, Keliher said, but DMR is working with Maine’s congressional delegation to find federal funding to offset “extraordinary costs” associated with new whale rules, including increased reporting.
The Maine delegation to the TRT was successful in negotiating some concessions for lobstermen here, Keliher said. Ropeless fishing and closed areas, both favored by conservation groups, were taken off the table. Maine fisherman Dwight Carver addressed the TRT meeting about the need for an area that young fishermen and those in skiffs can fish one- and two-trap trawls. That led to the group agreeing to exempt all waters within 1/4 mile from shore from the new requirements.
Carl Wilson, head of marine science for DMR, shared scenarios for achieving a 50 percent reduction in endlines with different gear configurations. Keliher said he wants to give the seven lobster management zones the chance to customize the rules to their areas.
Each zone has a different, separate set of rules for minimum (and sometimes maximum) number of traps on a trawl and for how often new licenses are issued.
In much of Zone B, which includes the waters around Mount Desert Island, fishermen are used to fishing shorter trawls (fewer traps) than their counterparts elsewhere in the state.
“I could get up here and say, ‘Triples inside, 10s from three to 12 miles, 20s offshore. Have a good summer,’” Keliher said, referring to a chart prepared by his staff of proposed gear configurations at different distances from the shore.
But Keliher said he’s committed to working out the changes in a collaborative way.
“When I started in this job seven years ago,” he said, “one of the things I said I would always do is get input of the industry. This is my way of trying to do that for you guys.”
There’s a tight timeline. He asked the zone council to discuss gear configurations that would work best for the fishermen they represent and send scenarios to DMR by July 15.
The department’s science staff will run the numbers on those suggestions to see if they meet the risk reduction requirements, he said, and bring them back to another set of zone meetings in August, when the councils will vote on them.
In September, DMR will submit a plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is expected to release a proposed whale protection rule sometime this winter.
But if Maine makes its proposal too complicated, Sargent warned, it’s less likely to fly with the federal regulators.