MYSTIC, Conn. — Eastern Maine lobstermen and scallopers were relieved to hear that the New England Fisheries Management Council (NEFMC) voted last week not to designate a habitat management area in Machias Bay and to close a smaller area off Hancock County than previously had been proposed.
The vote was on Amendment 2 to its Omnibus Essential Fish Habitat document aimed at rebuilding groundfish stocks in federal waters. Maine fishing industry representatives had been concerned that scallop dragging and lobster fishing would be impacted by rules in the amendment.
Among the alternatives before the council was closure of a large area (Large Eastern Maine) that runs from Vinalhaven past Mount Desert Rock to certain categories of fishing gear. They opted for small area off the Blue Hill peninsula, the “Small Eastern Maine” option, to be designated a “habitat area of particular concern” and flagged for future council attention and study.
“On the table originally were Eastern Maine Small, Eastern Maine Large and the Machias closure that included portions of the Gray Zone (the maritime boundary with Canada),” said Kyle Molton, policy director at the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington. He attended the meeting to testify. “The Gray Zone became real nonstarter. It was a good opportunity to educate folks on the council about how unique our fishery is Downeast.”
“The maritime boundary is in a gray zone between Canada and the U.S.,” Maine DMR external affairs director told the NEFMC in testimony earlier this year. “If the proposed (Machias) closure is approved, Maine scallop fishermen will be prohibited from fishing in the area, and Canadian fishermen would be allowed to continue fishing there. This alternative must be rejected, as the area is an extremely productive scallop ground.”
Five options were considered for which kinds of gear would be prohibited in these. “Option 5,” a “complete restriction on use of gear capable of catching groundfish,” was the biggest concern for the Maine lobster industry after recent debates about bycatch of cod and cusk in lobster gear. Under the current definitions, “gear capable of catching groundfish” does not include lobster traps, but some are nervous that could change. “Changing definitions is a much less public, intense process,” Molton said.
The council went with “Option 1,” which only restricts “mobile bottom tending gear.”
None of these changes, Molton noted, affect fishing operations in inshore state waters. “It starts at the three-mile line,” he said.