ELLSWORTH — A rule limiting to five the number of lobster traps on one trawl in an area encompassing some 300 square miles in the vicinity of Mount Desert Rock was adopted last week by the Maine Department of Marine Resources.
The roughly rectangular area, located in waters that are part of Lobster Management Zone B, stretches about 10 miles seawards starting at an imaginary 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.
The new rule becomes effective Oct. 1 and is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2019, subject to further action by DMR.
The rule has been highly controversial.
At a hearing in Ellsworth in late May attended by DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher, a number of angry fishermen, some from Zone B and others from Zone C who fish in the area, voiced strong opposition to the rule. Among the concerns the opponents cited was the likelihood of significant loss of gear.
In an unusual move, Keliher accompanied the official notice of adoption with a letter to fishermen explaining the rationale behind “one of the more difficult decisions that I have made as Commissioner.”
He acknowledged that the new rule “had the effect of creating conflict between fishermen, both within and outside of Zone B,” yet “unlike most rule-making, this rule was not done for reasons of resource management.”
While he “understood and appreciated the arguments made by both sides regarding how and why they fish the way they do,” Keliher said, he “also gave a lot of thought to the impacts this rule would have on fishermen who use that area.”
According to Keliher, the standard in the law for DMR adoption of a rule proposed by a Zone Management Councils is whether it is reasonable. The trawl limit was proposed by the Zone B Council last winter. The council voted unanimously to support it.
“Ultimately, I found that the proposed rule is reasonable,” Keliher wrote. “While other fishermen may fish there, these are Zone B waters. When possible, I want to support the Zones’ use of the authorities provided to them by the Legislature.”
Recognizing that the new rule is highly controversial, and that the regulated area is fished by lobstermen from more than one zone, Keliher said that, over the next several months, DMR will meet with fishermen in an effort to come up with a compromise solution—something not allowed during the formal rule-making process—where “conversations outside of the public hearing” are not allowed.
“I have decided to bring fishermen who use this area back to the table to find common ground,” Keliher said. That was the goal of providing a Dec. 31, 2019 sunset provision. Depending on the outcome of those discussions, DMR will either propose an amended rule, the same rule, or let the rule sunset.
“While I realize that many fishermen impacted by this rule will be unhappy with this outcome,” Keliher wrote, “I hope that this helps to explain how I came to this decision, and what to expect moving forward.”