By Stephen Rappaport
AUGUSTA — Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher briefed the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee on the latest news from the lobster bait and whale front.
The news was not good.
Speaking at a May 7 committee workshop, Keliher said the state was under severe pressure from NOAA Fisheries to find ways to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water that connect lobster traps to surface buoys. NOAA seeks a line reduction of more than 60 percent and wants it done soon.
This requirement, among others, arises out of efforts by the federal government to better protect endangered right whales from entanglement in fishing gear. There is considerable pressure from several conservation organizations involved in the whale protection process to put new restrictions in place sooner rather than later.
According to Keliher, DMR is working to develop “straw proposals” that can be presented to each of the state’s seven lobster zone management councils that are tailored to the different fishing conditions in each zone, then return with proposals that reflect comments received.
“Our hope is that we’ll have time to go back out for a second round, zone by zone, for recommendations to the Lobster Advisory Council” to approve new regulations. If necessary, Keliher said, DMR would come to the Legislature if it needed additional rulemaking authority.
Time is short, though, and it may be difficult for DMR to come up with proposals in time, especially since the agency is short on data on where there is a real risk of whale-fishing gear entanglement. A risk management model used by NOAA fisheries was still undergoing substantial revisions and had yet to be peer reviewed by independent scientists, Keliher said.
“We’re kind of driving without headlights,” he said.
While lobster management zones “have the tools” to reduce vertical lines through trap and trawl size limits, Keliher said, it is important to make sure that changes “work from zone to zone.”
Among the other changes that will be required for fishermen will be the use of rope with weaker breaking strength in the upper part of buoy lines. Exactly how that weaker line would be rigged will likely vary depending on trap configurations.
Besides reducing the number of lines in the water, and introducing weaker rope, Keliher said, there is a “push” for all federally permitted vessels to have electronic tracking devices on board while lobster fishing.
“That is certainly going to be a requirement going forward,” he said, adding that 100 percent harvester reporting, instead of the 10 percent currently required, was “vital” to producing data about how and where fishing was taking place. The data is necessary to support the state’s position as rulemaking at the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission goes forward.
“I regret supporting the (lobster) industry a year and a half ago” when it argued for 10 percent reporting, Keliher said.
On the bait front, Keliher said that regulators were “taking a more conservative approach” towards protecting the herring stock, with hopes that it would begin to recover from extremely low levels in the next two or three years. One measure extends the time that the fishery is closed during spawning season.
To help lobstermen with what is likely to be a severe bait shortage, DMR has approved the use of frozen menhaden from the Gulf of Mexico. A decision on whether to allow Asian carp from the Midwest as bait was “two to three weeks out.”