ELLSWORTH — Like the news that was shared at the Jan. 31 Zone B Council meeting, Zone C lobstermen also received mostly bad news at a council meeting held remotely on Feb. 9.
Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher shared information from a December 2021 Lobster Advisory Council meeting about new gear, reporting and trap line regulations.
Those in the industry discussed the obstacles in complying with the new rules, including supply chain constraints.
The new rules, imposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), are part of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, an evolving plan that was initially developed in 1997. Its goal is to “reduce injuries and deaths of large whales due to incidental entanglement in fishing gear,” including the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Complying with part of the plan, the use of approved weak rope that will break at 1,700 pounds of pressure to allow whales to break free if they become entangled, was doubted by some in the virtual audience.
Concerns of meeting the May 1 compliance deadline were raised by lobstermen as rope is among one of the goods plagued by today’s supply chain issues.
With lobstermen noting concern for the looming May 1 deadline, Maine’s congressional delegation and Governor Janet Mills sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo requesting that the regulations’ start date be pushed to July 1.
According to the letter, the May deadline will cause economic harm that outweighs the potential benefits to right whales.
“The economic harm imposed by the gear conversion deadline will be severe and the scarcity of required gear is making it difficult – if not impossible – for lobstermen to achieve timely compliance,” the letter reads.
“In addition to the flaws in the data informing the rule, this timeline disrupts the longstanding seasonal rotation of gear in the lobster fishery and is not correlated to whale migration patterns. Specifically, the rule cuts short a highly productive period for many lobstermen who will have to bring that gear ashore sooner than usual to make the required changes,” the letter continues. “Analysis has shown that extending the deadline by 60 days would present negligible additional risk to whales but would meaningfully reduce the economic harm to the lobster fishery. Should the compliance date change to July 1, the NMFS Decision Support Tool shows a potential increase in risk to whales of just .9 percent. On the other hand, failure to delay the rule will cost the industry $7.3 million.”
One option for lobstermen that could help ease supply restrictions is a recently approved line of in-line links made by Brooks Trap Mill, which has locations in Thomaston, Portland, West Bath, Jonesboro and Wakefield, R.I. That approval is listed on the NMFS website.
The links, also called weak links, are another measure to ensure ropes break at 1,700 pounds of pressure to allow whales to escape fishing gear if they become entangled.
In response to the compliance concerns, Keliher said that from a Marine Patrol standpoint, “We’re going to work with the industry.”
In other business, DMR Policy Director Dierdre Gilbert reported that the cost of trap tags will increase from 50 cents to 75 cents per tag.
A request for federal relief funds that would be used to reimburse fishermen for those fees in 2022 has not gotten final approval.