Trawl limit plan divides lobstermen

ELLSWORTH — A proposal to change the way some lobstermen fish in a large swath of water around Mount Desert Rock drew vocal opposition at a meeting in Ellsworth last week despite a unanimous vote in the Zone B Lobster Management Council.

At issue is a proposal to limit the number of traps that can be linked together in a single “trawl” in an area of about 300 square miles. The roughly rectangular area in waters that are part of Lobster Management Zone B stretches about 10 miles seawards from a line drawn six miles off the coast that extends roughly between Schoodic Point in the east and the southern end of Marshall Island in the west.

Currently, many lobstermen fish 15-trap trawls in the area. The proposed Department of Marine Resources rule would limit the size of the trawls to five traps. Under current federal rules aimed at protecting large whales from entanglement with fishing gear, fishermen must fish at least five-trap trawls in the area except around Mount Desert Rock where “pairs,” two traps linked together, are allowed because of the rocky bottom.

The opposition to trawl limits illuminates some of the complex issues that affect the lobster fishery. Many of the concerns voiced about gear conflicts reflect the resentment on the part of many Zone B fishermen over the amount of gear set in zone waters by fishermen from other zones, particularly Zone C.

In Zone B, the DMR may issue one new lobster license for every three surrendered, and three new licenses were issued in 2017. In Zone C, the “exit ratio” is 1:1, and the DMR issued 13 new licenses for Zone C last year.

Last December, the Zone B council voted unanimously to ask the DMR to ask fishermen licensed in that zone whether they supported a five-trap trawl limit.

In February, the DMR mailed a survey to each of the zone’s 518 license holders. Twenty-nine percent of the fishermen, 149, responded to the survey. Of those, 108 — 72 percent of the responding lobstermen but just 21 percent of lobstermen licensed to fish in Zone B — favored the trawl limit.

Many of the remaining 79 percent — those who voted “no” or didn’t bother to reply to the survey — spoke out against the trawl limit last week. So did several Zone C fishermen who were not eligible to vote in the survey but will be affected by the proposal.

Richard Larrabee Jr. fishes out of Stonington in Zone C, but he is allowed to set not more than 49 percent of his traps in Zone B waters that would be covered by the proposed trawl limit.

His concern is that the waters he fishes near the western edge of the trawl limit area are much deeper than at the eastern side, in some places nearly 600 feet. With five trap trawls, he will have to use a single buoy line rather than the two lines he uses on his longer trawls, one at either end. The strain on a buoy line hauling gear from such depths is enormous, he said, and a single buoy line increases the risk that some of his traps will remain on the bottom.

“The gear loss is going to be insane,” he said. “The commissioner [DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher] ought to go for a boat ride and actually look at it.”

Steve Philbrook is a Zone B fisherman from Islesford. Gear loss was on his mind as well, and the problem was cruise ships.

According to Philbrook, when he began fishing, only about 30 cruise ships cut through the area south of Mount Desert Rock on route to and from Bar Harbor each season. Their visits were limited to July and August, he said, so there was no conflict with lobster gear because fishermen generally didn’t move their traps into deeper offshore waters until September.

Last year, Bar Harbor received 163 cruise ship visits, and 180 are scheduled for this year, Philbrook said, many of them in September and October when the water will be chock full of lobster gear.

The increased traffic means an increased likelihood of gear loss, Philbrook said, especially if lobstermen are forced to fish single-buoy line, five-trap trawls rather than the 15-trap trawls common now.

“I switched to 15 traps last year,” Philbrook said. “I lost 20 endlines but not one trap. With fives [five-trap trawls], my loss in four weeks would have been more than 100 traps,” costing thousands of dollars.

The proposal creates “a 60-square mile closed area” because of cruise ship traffic, gear conflicts among lobstermen and “conflicts with the herring fleet,” which frequently operates in those waters during the fall.

The DMR proposal also will have another, “ironic” consequence, Philbrook said. It will put “thousands more endlines in the water” and increase the risk of entangling endangered whales just when the National Marine Fisheries Service Large Whale Take Reduction Team is considering measures such as “ropeless fishing” to reduce that very risk.

Some fishermen did speak out in support of the DMR proposal, including Jason Joyce and Joshua Joyce, both from Swans Island.

Jason Joyce represents his island community on the Zone B Council. He said that 79 percent of the lobstermen on the island who voted supported the trawl limit.

“A lot of guys used to fish down there and know what was traditionally done,” he said.

The western part of the trawl area is located off Swans Island and at the boundary of Management Zone C. While many Swans Island lobstermen set gear in the trawl limit area, Joyce said, he doesn’t because it has become too crowded with gear.

“It’s been a real trap war the last couple of years,” Joyce said.”

Phillip Torrey fishes out of Winter Harbor in Zone B. He said he was “neutral” towards the proposal, but said that mixing “buoy gear” — short trawls with a single, buoyed endline — and long trawls in the same area doesn’t work, especially with as much gear in the water as there is already.

“It’s a total cluster, what’s going on,” Torrey said. “A lot more tags [traps] are coming into our area and that’s where the conflict is. Everybody’s dead set and ready to go to war. It’s too bad, but that’s how it is.”

Fishermen had until June 1 to submit written comments on the proposed regulation to the DMR. After that, department staff will analyze both the oral and written comments and Keliher will make a decision. If the decision is affirmative, the new trawl limits would go into effect in about six months, said Sarah Cotnoir, the DMR lobster resource coordinator.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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