It is not the best of times for lobstermen. In fact, it may never have been worse. Those who lobster for a living have rarely had more than a season or two when there has not been some sort of regulatory action proposed. But now? They are facing a storm of challenges.
From wind power to whale rules, climate change to aquaculture, bait shortages to fuel costs, their occupation has never been battling on so many fronts at once. The latest is a bid by the Center for Biological Diversity to require the fishery to shift to ropeless gear within five years.
Fishermen in owner-operator fisheries like Maine’s have a vested interest in conservation. Rather than the thoughtless pirates of the sea that conservation groups often make them out to be, Maine lobstermen have been leaders in efforts to manage the resource their livelihoods depend on.
They participated in the V-notch program even when it was voluntary, marking the flipper of egg-bearing females and returning the lobster to the sea, making it illegal for another fisherman to harvest it and protecting the brood stock to keep the fishery healthy. They have spent countless hours in Augusta, working out the details of Maine’s zone system and trap limits and participating in studies in cooperation with state and federal regulators.
Every gear change means a massive overhaul of traps and rope as well as significant expenditure. Sometimes the government helped with the cost, but lobstermen have still borne some part of it. Despite that effort, they are often accused of not doing enough, fast enough. They have proven time and again that they are willing to help when the need is clear and the changes will make a positive difference, but that is often not the case.
Entanglement of a marine animal, be it a whale, a turtle or anything else, is horrendous. Rope gets caught in their mouths, wraps around their bodies, binds up their fins. It is a slow death, the rope getting pulled tighter and tighter the longer they drag it, with heavy gear attached, through the sea. No one wants that, least of all the fishermen.
Right whales have reached a critically low level of survival. Many state and federal regulations aimed at protecting whales have been implemented. They reduce the number of vertical lines in the water, regulate the number of traps on trawls and require a “breakaway” link that will part under stress. There is an assigned rope color that identifies the state in which the fisherman is licensed. Sinking rope keeps ground lines on bottom where they cannot snag passing marine life. Conservation areas have been closed to fishing altogether.
Fishermen have done their part, but the Maine fishery takes place mostly inshore, in an area where whales are seldom, if ever, seen. This makes it frustrating for fishermen who are told they must overhaul all their gear, at significant cost, every time there is a new requirement.
Now the proposal is to get rid of vertical lines altogether. The concept is intriguing and offers potential benefits in addition to whale protection, including ease of enforcement, ability to track gear that has shifted in storms or current, the reduction of the problem of one fisherman “setting over” another. The location of traps on bottom will be available to all, though not the proprietary data of who owns them and what’s in them.
Fishermen, inveterate tinkerers and genius innovators, would not have to be forced to adopt ropeless gear if it proved to be workable and affordable, and they have been willing partners in studying these gear types. But though prototypes have been developed, none have been tested at a level consistent with the existing commercial fishery.
One wildlife biologist involved in ropeless gear studies said, “In general, this gear is not ready for prime time.” A West Coast crab fisherman called it “expensive, impractical and unworkable.” The cost of a set-up lobster trap is somewhere south of $200, but a trap with ropeless technology could cost ten times that.
One of the consequences could be the consolidation of the fishery from small boat, owner-operator to company-owned big boats that can afford the new gear. The end of the owner-operator model has proven to have a negative impact in a fishery whose owners are right there on the water, not at a desk in a high-rise somewhere.
Ropeless lobster gear may yet prove to benefit right whale recovery, but it should not be deployed until further research proves its efficacy and there is a plan to help lobstermen with the cost of implementation. The success of any gear changes depends on the support of the fishing community, and the survival of the fishery is essential to the future of Downeast Maine.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.