ELLSWORTH — With the National Oceanic Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under a fast approaching, court-imposed deadline to develop new whale protection rules, the Zone C Lobster Management Council held a special meeting last week to get an update on the situation from Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher.
The meeting was also an opportunity to consider a zone-specific plan for gear modifications that will likely be required by NMFS. As with many things occurring during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the meeting took place in cyberspace.
On Aug. 19, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg gave NMFS nine months to craft new rules to protect endangered right whales from entanglement in lobster fishing gear. In the same order, the judge also denied a request by conservation organizations for an immediate ban on lobster fishing in a vast area of the ocean south of Nantucket Island in Massachusetts.
Last April, Boasberg ruled that NMFS violated the federal Endangered Species Act in 2014 when it adopted new rules governing the lobster fishery by failing to adequately consider the risk that endangered right whales could be seriously injured or killed if they become entangled in the vertical end lines that connect lobster traps on the sea floor to marker buoys on the surface. The judge vacated the NMFS “biological opinion” required by the ESA, which allowed continuation of the lobster fishery as it is currently practiced.
In August, the judge gave NMFS and the lobster industry until May 31, 2020, to come up with a new biological opinion and new lobster fishing regulations that would adequately protect endangered right whales from entanglement in fishing gear. He ordered NMFS to submit progress reports to the court every 60 days beginning Sept. 30. NMFS scheduled a webinar for the afternoon of Sept. 29 to bring stakeholders up to date on the progress.
For the past several months, the Department of Marine Resources has been working with the lobster industry and NMFS to develop whale protection rules that would reduce the number of vertical buoy lines in the water and satisfy the court but still allow for a viable lobster fishery. One element of those rules involves requiring the minimum number of traps that may be fished on a trawl, or group of traps, marked by a vertical buoy line.
Earlier this year, DMR developed a minimum trawl length proposal to submit to in the fall. Fall has arrived and DMR will likely have to submit its proposal within the next several days but, no surprise, the one–plan–fits–all approach was unpopular with lobstermen because fishing conditions — depth of water, tidal heights and strength of currents, type of bottom — vary widely along the Maine coast. What might be suitable around Kittery might well be dangerous in Downeast waters.
With that in mind, DMR asked the state’s seven Lobster Zone Management Councils to set up working groups to come up with zone-specific proposals for minimum trawl lengths and for the number of “weak points” inserted in buoy lines so that they would break if a whale was entangled. Each working group would then submit its recommendations to the zone council for approval.
Last week, the Zone C council met to consider the recommendations of its working group. Speaking over an internet connection, Keliher told council members that he thought a zone-by-zone approach was the best way to proceed and that there was no time to waste.
“The big thing,” Keliher said, “is the zone has to think about taking a position today.” Otherwise there was a risk that fishermen in the zone would have to operate under DMR’s statewide plan indefinitely, if NMFS even accepted it as a viable alternative to even stricter rules.
Both plans would set the minimum number of traps required on a trawl, and the number of weak points, based on the distance from shore where the traps were set.
Under both the DMR and zone plans, there would be no minimum areas up most bays, but from a predetermined “exemption line” out to 3 miles offshore, DMR would set the minimum at three traps while the zone would allow lobstermen to fish pairs of traps. Outside 12 miles, the DMR plan would set a 25-trap minimum while the zone plan would allow 20 traps. To make up for this difference, and to get an equivalent reduction in the number of vertical lines in the water, the zone would accept slightly longer minimum trawl lengths than DMR calls for in the areas between 3 and 12 miles offshore.
The smaller minimum trawls in offshore waters are a matter of safety, some say of life and death, to lobstermen. More traps on each trawl increase the amount of gear often small boats would have to carry when fishing offshore, including huge amounts of line for traps set in deeper waters.
At the other end of the scale, lobsterman John Williams said, for lobstermen who fish around many of the offshore islands in Zone C, “pairs will be a real help for them between the exemption line and 3 miles.”
The issue of minimum trawl lengths is complicated by the requirement that buoy lines be rigged with “weak points” that have a maximum breaking strength of 1,700 pounds. For lobstermen fishing as many as 800 traps, it is important to have weak links that are easy to rig and inexpensive to use.
According to Erin Summers, director of DMR’s Biological Monitoring and Assessment Division and the department’s “point person” on the whale rules issue, the department has been testing several different types of weak links with ropes of varying diameters from a number of rope manufacturers. The weak links range in complexity from a simple sheet bend (a type of knot) and loop configuration to a plastic “dog bone” with rope attached at each end that breaks in the middle, to a more complex “time and tension” line cutter that could work in offshore waters but is still under development.
The council’s consensus was that the sheet bend was the way to go and that 90 percent of fishermen in the zone already use it.
“DMR can submit it with the comment that the zone plan depends on acceptance of the sheet bend,” Keliher said. “That particular weak link is what’s helping the industry along and we can put the data behind it.”
While zone-specific minimum trawl limits may work for most lobstermen, those who fish in more than one zone aren’t likely to be pleased.
“If you fish in multiple zones it’s going to be a nightmare,” one Stonington lobsterman said.
“Not every zone will be consistent,” he said. “You’ll just have to jump through the hoops to fish in a neighboring zone.”