MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — Even though a deadline to present a state plan designed to minimize potential harm to right whales is fast approaching, members of the Zone B Lobster Management Council asked Department of Marine Resources officials to check numbers for the area 6-12 miles offshore before agreeing to a plan specific to that fishing zone.
“The timeline is short,” said DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher at the Zone B meeting that took place via Zoom on Oct. 5. “We have a draft rule that can come out just about any time. We have time to run scenarios with existing data to come up with a state plan.”
In August 2019, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg gave National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) 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 by failing 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.
With that in mind, DMR asked the state’s seven Lobster Zone Management Councils to establish working groups to create 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.
In the proposal put before members of the Zone B council earlier this month, the number of trawl minimums for the area 3-12 miles offshore were different from the state recommendation.
Broken down in 3-mile zones, the state plan cites four minimum and eight maximum trawl lines in the 3- to 6-mile area, and eight minimum with 15 maximum in the 6- to 12-mile area. For both of those areas, Zone B’s subcommittee is proposing a minimum of five and a maximum of 10 traps per trawl line, except for a specific area in the 6-mile and 12-mile zone around Mount Desert Rock that only allows for a five trap maximum.
“It’s not set in stone; it’s definitely not perfect,” said council member Richard Howland. “We thought it would be cleaner and neater to set fives all the way out.”
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. Members of the Zone B subcommittee varied in only one area from the state when it came to their recommendation on weak points. Where the state recommends one weak point 30 percent of the way down a line in the 12-mile and further out area, the council is recommending there be two weak points at 25 percent and 50 percent of the way down a line.
While most members of the Zone B council seemed in favor of the subcommittee’s recommendations, there was some hesitation.
“I support this; it would work for me,” said Howland. “I’d hate to railroad it if there are some concerns. This is better than it could be, but it doesn’t sound like it’s ideal for some guys.”
“There’s a side of me that feels like this is getting stuffed down my throat,” said council member James Hanscom after asking if the decision could be tabled.
“If that’s what the zone wanted to do, we’d have to turn it around as soon as we could,” said Keliher, who agreed to reassess numbers recommended to the group. “I’m hearing the uncertainty around that 3- to 6-mile area. You’re already at two weak points above 12; everything’s a compromise at this point.”
There has yet to be a date set for the next Zone B council meeting at which numbers for what is possible in the 3- to 6-mile and the 6- to 12-mile areas would be presented.
Because of the pandemic, cruise ships are not traveling around the shores of Maine, and Hanscom wondered if that would have any bearing on the federal judge’s ruling. Members of the lobster fishing industry have expressed frustration with having to change the way it operates when there is not absolute proof the whale endangerment can be attributed to offshore fishing.
“About the only damn good thing about COVID is we don’t have anything to do with this,” said Hanscom.
“Having no deaths this year doesn’t change the fact that the population is at an all–time low,” said Keliher. “It has to do with risk. You’re talking long-term recovery.”