ELLSWORTH – A plan to protect deep sea coral from damage caused by fishing drew strong support from Maine’s lobstermen Thursday but mostly because planned fishing restrictions won’t affect them.
The New England Fishery Management Council has spent much of the past two years developing an “Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment” aimed at reducing the potential impacts of fishing on corals found in extremely deep water along the Northeast coast. As part of the process, the council proposed several alternatives that would prohibit all fishing in the affected areas. One plan would bar fishing in water depths ranging between 300 and 600 meters (about 985 to 1,970 feet). Another would ban fishing in 20 separate submarine canyons off the southern boundary of Georges Bank.
Some of those canyons lie within the boundaries of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument established by President Barack Obama last September.
While most of the areas that could be protected lie far offshore, two areas are situated within the Gulf of Maine. One is near Mount Desert Rock. The other is on Outer Schoodic Ridge.
Mount Desert Rock lies about 20 miles south of Mount Desert Island in Lobster Management Zone B. The council considered two alternative protection zones, primarily southwest of the rock, one of about 18 square miles and the other about 8 square miles, with water depths of 100 to 200 meters (330 to 660 feet).
The Outer Schoodic Ridge area lies about 25 miles southeast of MDI in Lobster Management Zone A. The protected area would be about 31 square miles in size.
Both areas are important lobster fishing grounds.
Last winter, the Department of Marine Resources submitted a preliminary analysis to the council showing that closing the two areas to lobster fishing would have a significant impact.
In both 2015 and again last year, the value of Maine’s lobster landings topped $500 million. According to the department, preliminary figures show landings in Zone A topped $106 million last year and $99.6 million in 2015. In Zone B, 2016 landings were more than $77 million, about 9 percent more than the $70.7 million landings of 2015. In Zone C, home to a number of lobstermen who fish around Mount Desert Rock, landings were about $133.5 million, up from a shade less than $126 million in 2015.
During that same year, based on data from dealer reports only, 2,316 lobstermen were licensed to fish in those three zones, and 640 had licenses allowing them to fish in federal waters outside the three-mile state waters limit, where both proposed closed areas are located.
According to the DMR analysis, boats with federal permits made some 56,381 fishing trips (about 40 percent of the total trips) but were responsible for 57 percent of landings from the three zones. Of course, not all of those landings came from the areas that would be closed, or even necessarily from federal waters.
In Zone A, landings from federal waters represented 65 percent of the total and 67 percent of the value of lobsters landed in the zone.
In Zone B, federal waters landings represented 60 percent of the total, and the total value.
Between 2011 and 2014 in Zone A, east of Schoodic Point, trips more than 12 miles offshore — the area where the Outer Schoodic Ridge closure would be located — represented just 8 percent of all trips, but 15 percent of the landed value of lobsters in the zone.
During the same period in Zone B, off Mount Desert Island, trips beyond the three-mile limit (where the proposed Mount Desert Rock closure is located) represented 41 percent of all trips and 50 percent of the landed value.
The avalanche of data persuaded the fishery management council. This month, it scheduled a series of public hearings at six locations along the Northeast coast between Montauk, at the eastern end of New York’s Long Island Sound, and Ellsworth on a coral protection plan that still would ban mobile bottom tending gear, such as trawl nets, from fishing around Mount Desert Rock and on Outer Schoodic Ridge but allow lobster fishing to continue in those areas.
That “preferred alternative” drew strong support from fishermen and DMR at the hearing held at Ellsworth High School Thursday afternoon. There was little concern with proposals relating to the deep offshore canyon areas in southern New England where relatively little lobstering takes place.
Commissioner Patrick Keliher testified that DMR supports the preferred alternative offered by the council.
Each of the proposed protected areas “supports more than 50 vessels from more than 15 harbors,” Keliher said. Forcing that many fishermen to move their traps into areas where they haven’t fished before could “result in gear conflicts,” already a significant problem along the boundary between zones B and C.
The displacement of gear could also have an impact on efforts to protect endangered whales, he said. Thousands of vertical buoy lines would be in the water around the edges of the closed zones and would create a “curtain effect” in areas where there is already a lot of interaction between whales and lobster gear.
Support for Keliher’s testimony drew a virtually unanimous show of hands from the approximately 50 lobstermen at the hearing.
In a relatively rare show of unanimity, representatives of the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association (DELA), Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) and Maine Lobstering Union all favored the preferred alternative.
Stonington lobsterman Hilton Turner testified on behalf of DELA. Like Keliher, he expressed concern that forcing lobstermen to move their traps and fish around “fishermen they’re not familiar with” could lead to serious gear conflicts.
“We don’t want to add any more fuel to this fire,” he told council member Doug Grout, Keliher’s New Hampshire counterpart, and Michelle Bachman, the council’s chief habitat fishery analyst.
MLA president David Cousens and union president Rocky Alley both emphasized the potential impact the displacement of thousands of lobster traps would have on endangered whales.
“We don’t need to create a wall of rope,” Cousens said.
Closing the Mount Desert Rock and Schoodic Ridge areas is also a pocketbook issue.
Alley said the impact on Maine’s economy would be “three to five times the value” of the actual lobster landings.
“The economic impact could be devastating,” according to Cranberry Island lobsterman Richard Howland.
The council will accept written comments on the draft amendment until 5 p.m. on Monday, June 5. Comments can be emailed to [email protected], faxed to (978) 465-3116 or mailed to Thomas A. Nies, Executive Director, 50 Water St. Mill 2, Newburyport, Mass. 01950.
The council will meet at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland on June 20-June 22 and may vote on the coral protection plan June 22.