BAR HARBOR — After waiting a month to discuss possible alternatives, members of the Zone B Lobster Management Council last week agreed to present to the state a proposal for regulations aimed at protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The Department of Marine Resources had asked the zone council and others around the state to come up with proposals specific to their waters. The local plan must be a “conservation equivalent” to the state’s proposal. The state’s plan recommends a minimum of four traps on a trawl line with a single end line and eight on a line with two end lines in the 3- to 6-mile area offshore. In the 6- to 12-mile area offshore, the state is proposing a minimum of eight traps with one end line and 15 traps with two end lines.
In Zone B, members of a subcommittee are recommending fishing a minimum of five traps on a trawl with a single end line and 10 traps with two end lines in the area 3 to 12 miles offshore. In one area, a section surrounding a portion of Mount Desert Rock, mostly to the north and west, with a small section on the southwestern side, there is a five-trap minimum and maximum for any trawl lines dropped in that area, an exception to the rules laid out for the 6- to 12-mile area offshore. Zone B Lobster Management Council members met on Nov. 5 to review and consent to submitting their proposal to DMR.
When a Zone B Council member asked DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher if the proposal was getting them closer to where fishermen need to be to comply, Keliher responded, “This is a federal rule, and we are hoping we’re going forward. We don’t know. Who knows how this is all going to come out?”
In August 2019, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service nine months to craft new rules to protect endangered right whales from entanglement in lobster fishing gear. Boasberg ruled in April 2019 that NMFS violated the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2014 when it adopted new rules governing the lobster fishery. Boasberg said NMFS failed to consider adequately 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’s “biological opinion” required by the ESA, which allowed continuation of the lobster fishery as it is currently practiced.
For the past several months, the DMR 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.
“If they don’t accept this essentially as it is and force something else on us, will you and the Governor roll up your sleeves and fight for us?” asked David Horner, a member of the Zone B Lobster Management Council.
“The Governor has told me if they don’t accept our plan, then we’re going to see what other course of action there is,” said Keliher.
During a meeting Oct. 5, and again in the meeting last week, fishermen asked if favorable light would be shed on the industry if there were no whale deaths during this season when cruise ships are not coming in and out of harbors along the Maine coast.
“It’s all about risk,” Keliher said. “In the last three months, we’ve had entangled whales off Massachusetts and New Jersey. Yes, there’s nothing happening with cruise ships, but there have been things happening with right whales and fishing gear.”
A federal ruling is expected no later than May 2021. At that point, the state will have its proposal and those offered by each zone council to present for a possible resolution.