ELLSWORTH — Federal officials this week unveiled the long-awaited new regulations for the lobster fishery that were crafted to help save the endangered North Atlantic right whale by reducing the risk of entanglements with fishing gear.
Officials anticipate that the new rules will reduce the risk of death or serious injury caused by entanglement by about 69 percent. The rules will cut the number of lines that run from lobstermen’s traps on the seafloor to the buoy on the surface, weaken the remaining lines so whales can more easily break free from lines and add fishing gear marking requirements so the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can better tell what gear is connected to entanglements.
“The new measures in this rule will allow the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries to continue to thrive, while significantly reducing the risk to critically endangered right whales of getting seriously injured or killed in commercial fishing gear,” said Michael Pentony, a regional administrator at NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office.
NOAA will introduce a seasonal closure for a portion of the offshore fishery in Maine from October to January. Lobstermen could fish in the area if they use “ropeless” fishing technology, a type of gear that still is in the testing phase and isn’t available for wide commercial usage.
The 967-square-mile area is largely off the Midcoast and runs from west of Mount Desert Island to roughly Casco Bay.
This piece has been one of the most controversial parts, especially for Mainers. Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Winter Harbor lobsterman and a Republican state representative, was flabbergasted by the move.
“To close an area that big in area 1 is mind-blowing,” he said. “We have done everything they’ve asked of us, and they keep reducing and reducing.”
The state’s federal legislative delegation last week argued that such a closure lacked a strong scientific basis and would hurt fishermen more than it would reduce risk for the whales.
On Tuesday, the delegation, along with Gov. Janet Mills, reiterated their displeasure. While they agreed that the right whales need to be protected, they said it had to be done without hurting lobstermen.
“It is unacceptable that Maine lobstermen and women continue to be the primary target of burdensome regulations despite the multiple effective mitigation measures they have taken and the data showing that ship strikes, and Canadian snow crab gear pose substantially greater risks to right whales,” they wrote.
In a press call on Tuesday, NOAA officials acknowledged that this area and time of year was important for fishermen, but said the closure was put in place because there was a large overlap in whale and vertical line density.
NOAA estimated that the first-year implementation of the new rule across the entire lobster fishery would cost between $9.8 million and $19.2 million, including the time and cost of new gear configurations and the estimated drop in catch. The closure would affect 120 vessels, split evenly between those that fish in the area and lobstermen who would be crowded by fishermen relocating their traps out of the closed area.
Faulkingham felt that NOAA was underestimating the damage that would be caused to the offshore fishery, which has about 1,000 boats statewide, in the industry’s peak months.
Crystal Canney, the executive director of Protect Maine’s Fishing Heritage Foundation, called the closure “incredulous.”
“Why would you penalize an iconic Maine industry for the sake of being able to say you are saving right whales?” she said in a statement. “It’s like cutting off an arm when it’s the foot that is the problem and pretending you fixed the problem.”
NOAA said no one is solely to blame for the shrinking right whale population but reducing the number of lines in the water in the northeast is an important step to protecting the remaining whales.
The biggest changes affect offshore lobstermen, but there are regulations set for inshore with the new rule.
Maine lobstermen that fish within the three-mile line would need one weak insert halfway down their vertical line or use weak rope for the top-half of the line. Between three and 12 miles out, fishermen would need inserts at a quarter and halfway down the line, or use weak rope for the top half.
New minimums were set for traps per trawl out in order to increase the number of traps per line so there would be fewer vertical lines in the water.
The federal government received more than 170,000 written comments on the proposed plan, though there were several duplicates and only about 1,000 were unique comments that were not clearly part of a coordinated campaign.
The North Atlantic right whale has been in decline for years and there are now about 360 left on the planet. The species migrates up and down the east coast and up into Canada. New England waters are where they largely feed and mate. Entanglements have been a major contributor in their demise, according to federal officials.
The new gear modifications in the rule will go into effect in May 2022, while the seasonal closures will start 30 days after the publication of the rule.
As much as lobstermen were against the new rule, conservation agencies were also displeased, though they felt the regulations didn’t go far enough.
Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager with Oceana, was still reviewing the details of the final rule but said it looked similar to the proposed rule with minor adjustments in the seasonal restricted areas in the Gulf of Maine and south of Massachusetts. He and his organization felt that the new rules were not strong enough.
“Oceana is still concerned with the reliance on weak rope, the inability of the government to react and respond when (right whales) are found outside of their past habitats and the poor monitoring of the fisheries and interactions that may hide the effects of this action,” he wrote in an email.
Brogan was glad to see the seasonal closures were going into effect on a faster timeline than the gear modifications.
The Pew Charitable Trusts, which recently published a study that found there was public support for restrictions around right whales, was also disappointed.
“Saving right whales from extinction requires more than these weak measures and limited closures, which represent just a fraction of when and where right whales are present in New England waters,” said Katharine Deuel, a senior officer with Pew, in a statement. “Science and the public support stronger protections, including a transition to ropeless fishing gear, closures in known areas of high risk at the right times, and dynamic management that closely tracks the changing patterns of right whales.”
The state Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said they were reviewing the new regulations.
Local lobstermen previously pushed back against the proposed rules. Many have maintained that they have never come across a right whale while fishing and felt that any new rules wouldn’t change the outlook for the species but would greatly hinder the industry.
Rep. Faulkingham worried that a closure like this could open the door to more closures further Downeast in the future.
“That would be an absolute catastrophe,” he said.
From here, NOAA plans to look at potential changes to other fisheries, as well as work on a plan to mitigate vessel strikes and collaborate with Canada on the recovery. The agency is also developing a guide to ropeless fishing that’s expected to be done in May 2022.