STONINGTON — A swath of offshore fishing ground will close next week to traditional lobstering. The annual seasonal closure is the first of several measures put in place by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The closure starts on Oct. 18 and will run through January. The 967-square-mile area is about 30 miles offshore and runs between the west side of Mount Desert Island to approximately Casco Bay. NOAA said the shutdown is being put in place to reduce the amount of vertical fishing lines that whales can get entangled in. Vertical lines run from traps on the sea floor to surface buoys.
The federal agency estimated that about 60 fishermen fish directly in the area and displacing them would affect an additional 60 fishermen. Lobstermen feel NOAA has severely underestimated the number of fishermen it would affect, but because lobster boats don’t have to disclose where they fish, it is hard to get a solid estimate.
The Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries said it could affect upward of 30 lobstermen from Zone C, which includes Stonington, the largest lobster port in the state.
The offshore fishery makes up only a fraction of the state’s lobstermen, but the people who fish in that area have said that it is a lucrative fishing ground and the closure comes at a crucial time of the season.
In recent legal filings, Damon Family Lobster Co., a Stonington lobster retailer and wholesaler, said that up to 1.3 million pounds of the 4 million pounds of the lobster it sells annually comes from the closed area.
Lobstermen will be able to fish with so-called “ropeless” fishing gear, though they would have to get a special permit both from the federal government and the state. Ropeless gear does not include the persistent fishing line in the water column. It is an emerging technology, but many lobstermen remain skeptical, and the gear isn’t available on a commercial scale.
Lobstermen have maintained that they are not what’s causing the downturn of right whales and argue that the data behind the closure and other new regulations are flawed. They contend that right whales are rarely seen around these parts, though NOAA confirmed that a right whale was spotted last month off Portland.
The Maine Lobstering Union, along with Damon Family Lobster, has filed a lawsuit over the closure and has called for its implementation to be halted.
Bill McWeeny, a Castine teacher and the chairman of the Maine Coalition for North Atlantic Right Whales, said arguments that the lobster fishery is being unfairly targeted by the new rules based on the rarity of known whale entanglements in Maine are misleading.
A vast majority of entanglements are not pinpointed to the fishery or region responsible, he said.
“Saying that the Maine lobster fishery is not responsible for right whale entanglements is like saying: ‘Because we didn’t see it happen here, it didn’t happen here,’” he said. “Using the limited data available, any fishery on the east coast could deny responsibility for right whale entanglements. But it’s not a reasonable argument to make.”
Paul Anderson, the executive director of the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, worries that the closure will hit offshore lobstermen hard. NOAA estimated that implementation could cost up to $19.2 million, or about 3 percent of the fishery’s landings in 2019.
Being an offshore lobsterman is baked into a business plan. They have larger boats and count on fishing year-round.
“Their business model depends on being able to get out there,” Anderson said. It’s also not as simple as just moving to another place to fish.
“There’s somebody already fishing there,” he said.
The union’s lawsuit claimed that the closure could affect 500 lobster boats and is expected to spark the largest “trap war” the state of Maine has ever seen. Lobstermen don’t have deeded areas that are theirs alone to fish in, but an unwritten social creed dictates where everyone lays their traps.
“Somehow, there are agreements that keep conflicts to a minimum,” Anderson said. He is concerned that the closure could cause some of those unwritten rules to deteriorate as lobstermen look for a place to set their gear. “Those norms are going to be disrupted by this closed area.”