ELLSWORTH — Maine lobstermen were expecting that bad news would come out of last week’s meeting of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) and their expectations were met.
At the end of a four-day meeting in Providence, R.I., on Friday, the TRT reached a “consensus” recommendation to NOAA Fisheries that the number of vertical endlines connecting lobster traps to marker buoys on the water’s surface should be reduced by as much as 50 percent in some areas of the Gulf of Maine.
It was also recommended that lobstermen use weaker rope for the vertical lines that can ensnare whales, among them endangered right whales.
NOAA is expected to begin the federal rulemaking process to implement the recommendations in the immediate future, but it may not go smoothly.
“While this is a heavy lift for Maine’s lobster industry it could have been far worse,” Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said Monday. “Many TRT participants pushed for ropeless fishing, large-scale closed areas and drastic trap reductions.”
The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) recommended several whale protection measures that were not adopted by the TRT.
“Reducing and weakening the lines in the water is a start, but we need to go much further, much faster,” Erica Fuller, senior staff attorney at CLF, said in a statement released Friday afternoon. “Appropriate closures and ropeless fishing need to be part of the solution.”
In the days before the TRT met, Keliher and Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, wrote separate letters to NOAA Fisheries Regional Director Michael Pentony pointing to flaws in the process leading up to the TRT meeting.
Keliher said NOAA Fisheries was using a “risk reduction model” to set whale protection goals that was hastily developed, relied on incomplete data and had not been subjected to scientific peer review to determine its accuracy.
A final version of the model wasn’t available to the Take Reduction Team before it met last week.
McCarron also criticized the truncated review period for the model before the TRT convened on April 23 and the announcement by NOAA Fisheries “on April 5 via email, with no opportunity for discussion by any TRT member,” that whale injuries and mortalities must be reduced by 60 to 80 percent.
Just how NMFS will implement the TRT’s recommendations remains to be seen, but the impact is likely to be felt all along the Maine coast.
In a letter to Maine Lobstermen’s Association members Monday, McCarron wrote, “After days of considering a variety of alternatives, Maine agreed to reduce its risk to right whales by 60 percent as long as other states and lobster fishing areas agreed to do the same. To achieve this, Maine has committed to a 50 percent reduction in vertical lines.”
In addition, she said, Maine’s plan calls for the use of weaker rope on the upper sections of buoy lines, unique marking of Maine’s buoy lines and improved reporting by lobstermen of when, where and how they fish.
Currently, only 10 percent of harvesters, chosen at random annually, file gear reports with DMR.
In her letter, McCarron said, “This approach gives lobstermen some flexibility to develop a broad set of techniques so that Maine’s diverse lobstering operations, both large and small, can remain viable.”
“I will be working with Maine’s lobster industry in the very near future to determine how the objectives outlined by the TRT can be achieved in a way that accomplishes the established conservation goal,” Keliher said Monday “This is an industry that has, for more than two decades, worked diligently on whale protection regulations.
“I am certain that, while these conversations will be difficult and sacrifices will be necessary, they will result in a plan that both protects whales and sustains Maine’s vital lobster industry.”