ELLSWORTH — Area lobstermen heard little good news at a Jan. 31 Zone B Council meeting as Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher shared information presented earlier at a December 2021 Lobster Advisory Council meeting.
New gear, reporting and trap line regulations and the temporary closure of local waters to lobster fishing – all aimed at protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale – are changing how lobstermen fish today and in the future. But greater challenges will play out in federal courts, as lawsuits levied by well-funded environmental groups could shut the fishery completely down.
“This represents the greatest threat to the industry,” Deputy Commissioner Meredith Mendelson said.
If the federal court rules to vacate the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s biological opinion, as one lawsuit requests, on grounds that it violates the Endangered Species Act and the 1946 Administration Procedures Act (which governs how federal agencies develop and issue regulations), then NOAA’s National Fisheries Marine Service (NFMS) could not legally authorize the fishery to operate.
The whale problem the lobster fishing industry faces is intensifying. Right whales get entangled in trap lines, which can cause severe injury and death. But Maine lobstermen have held firm that this isn’t happening in Maine fishing waters because right whale migration patterns have changed enough that their presence is limited in local waters.
Yet, acoustical testing has shown the presence of right whales moving through Lobster Management Area 1, a portion of which NFMS temporarily closed to protect the whales, Keliher said.
“But we’re not seeing them congregation here and, most importantly, we’re not seeing them entangled in gear,” he noted.
Lamoine lobsterman Duncan Haass asked how many whales have died within state waters in the last 10, 15, 20 years, “and why are we, Maine lobstermen, fishermen, why are we a good point of avenue for lawsuits?”
The commissioner noted that while there have been no known entanglements in Maine in the past decade, “we make up the vast amount of end lines,” so, from a federal perspective, Maine lobstermen are the problem.
“Because they don’t know, they’re going to make that assumption,” Keliher said.
Eighty percent of right whales show scarring from line entanglements, according to NFMS data. And while the current rule changes seek a 60 percent reduction in right whale deaths, with the number of right whales estimated at 336 at its lowest number in nearly 20 years, a greater risk reduction, as high as 98 percent, may be sought in the near future.
“A 98 percent risk reduction in 10 years will change the industry,” Keliher warned.
While ropeless lobster trap technology is under development, it is not here yet for wide-scale use and may be cost-prohibitive for many lobstermen.
The lack of clarity in some of the data does not bode well for the Maine lobster industry, so for now DMR is focusing on the courts, Keliher continued.
A piece of good news is that new federal pandemic relief funds are coming for lobstermen through the Consolidated Appropriations Act.
“It’s a new slug of money,” DMR Policy Director Dierdre Gilbert said, and will reimburse lobstermen for license fees. Earlier CARES Act funds were available to lobstermen who had a greater than 35 percent revenue loss.
“This way, we’re basically reimbursing you for a cost you had,” Gilbert said.
In addition, DMR is purchasing rope for lobstermen from federal relief funds that must be spent or returned, Keliher said.
In other business, state Rep. Genevieve MacDonald (D-Stonington) told lobstermen a bill initiated by former Rep. Walter Kumiega that she is sponsoring would allow a 4 a.m. start time for lobster fishing in September. The bill had a public hearing on Feb. 1 before the Joint Standing Committee on Marine Resources voted to recommend the House and Senate pass the legislation.
Additionally, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will hold hearings on an addendum to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Lobsters to address lobster stock resiliency, Keliher said.