TREMONT — A planned lawsuit aimed at changing rules intended to reduce whale entanglements in lobstering gear is a bad idea, Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said during a recent visit to Mount Desert Island.
Kim Ervin Tucker, a Lincolnville lawyer representing the new Maine Lobstering Union, filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue (NOIS) letter with the National Marine Fisheries Service in August. At issue are provisions in the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Program rules requiring sinking groundline and more traps per trawl to reduce the overall number of vertical lines in the water.
The sinking groundline rule went into effect in 2009. A new set of rules, including new minimums for the number of traps per trawl for certain distances from shore, was announced in July of this year dealing with vertical lines. Representatives from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, fishermen and fishermen’s associations have seats on the Take Reduction Team (TRT), the committee that negotiates the whale rules.
“You’ve got the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association, Southern Maine Lobstermen,” Keliher explained. “The Lobstering Union was at the table, and I said you can remain at the table, we want you at the table.”
Keliher said he understands the safety and economic concerns spelled out in the notice of intent to sue, and has often discussed them during his meetings with fishermen.
“You make those economic arguments to the (TRT) delegation,” Keliher said. “I’m willing to go back and enter conversations about the ground line issue, but you have to do it thoughtfully, and with science, and with an understanding of the risk that you’re taking.”
He and other officials worry that a lawsuit could undermine the work done by the Maine delegation so far to win exemptions from the rules and mitigate their impact on the fishery.
“This last time around with the vertical lines – and we’re not done, we’re trying to get some exemptions to the existing rules – we hit a home run,” he said. “We hit a grand slam.” Because the industry and the state work so well together, he explained, Maine fishermen face rules that are less restrictive than in many other areas.
David Gourveia, acting assistant regional administrator for protected resources at NOAA Fisheries Northeast Region, was one of the recipients of the Union’s NOIS. He echoed Keliher’s desire to negotiate at the level of the TRT rather than through litigation.
“Although we do receive legal challenges on our regulations from time to time (from both fishing and conservation interests), for the most part, we generally prevail in court,” he said in an email. “The reason that we are successful in defending our regulations is because of the work we do with the Take Reduction Team and the general public to develop and implement regulations that provide meaningful conservation benefits to large whale species while at the same time preserving the ability for fishermen to continue to fish.”