DEER ISLE — For Maine lobstermen, 2019 is likely to bring a summer of discontent.
Fuel prices are high. Cuts in herring fishing quotas — with further cuts likely — mean that bait is likely to be extremely scarce, and whatever’s available extremely expensive as the season develops. And that’s the good news.
What really has lobstermen worked up is the demand by federal regulators that they reduce the risk of death or injury to endangered right whales in the Gulf of Maine by 60 percent. To do that, Maine lobstermen will have to reduce the number of vertical endlines in the water — the lines that link traps on the bottom to buoys on the surface — by 50 percent.
Despite the harsh restrictions, the recommendations of NOAA’s Large Whale Take Reduction Team were a victory of sorts. For the time being, there is no suggestion of closing areas of the Gulf of Maine to fishing and the demand by some conservation organizations for the use of “ropeless” fishing gear was quashed.
Last Thursday, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher drew a packed house to a meeting of the Zone C Lobster Management Council, held at the Reach Performing Arts Center in the Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School, to explain the regulatory process and to hear suggestions from lobstermen as to how best to meet the line reduction goal in the area where they fish.
It was the second of seven meetings Keliher has scheduled with the state’s seven zone councils this month. Carl Wilson, DMR’s chief scientist, and most of the department’s upper echelon, were on hand as well.
DMR is working on a very tight timeline, Keliher said.
NOAA Fisheries, which will impose the new whale protection measures, plans to have a draft rule ready to go out for public comment sometime during the coming winter. If Maine wants NOAA Fisheries to consider suggestions from the state’s lobster industry, DMR will have to present a formal proposal to the federal agency in September.
Ultimately, whatever rules NOAA Fisheries adopts will likely go into effect in time for the 2021 fishing season.
“This is not going to happen overnight,” Keliher said but, he said, “there is one wild card in this timeline and that’s the courts.”
Currently, there are three separate federal lawsuits filed by several conservation organizations aimed at forcing NOAA Fisheries to speed up its rulemaking process.
“The courts could require a faster timeline from NOAA,” Keliher said.
The proposal for a 50 percent reduction in vertical lines, together with the use of weak rope “toppers” on those lines, arose out of a meeting of the Large Whale Take Reduction Team earlier this spring.
This “consensus” recommendation was based on the determination that each state and federal lobster conservation management area must reduce the “risk” to whales, as determined by a computer model that is still under development and has yet to undergo independent peer review to determine its accuracy.
Last month, all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation joined in a letter to Neil Jacobs, the acting undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere and head of NOAA, calling for peer review of the so-called “Decision Support Tool” and condemning the fact that the calculation of risk posed by various configurations of fishing gear was based on the opinions of TRT members collected in a poll rather than on empirical data.
Another issue with TRT’s recommendations is that it requires U.S. and Canadian fishermen to share the responsibility for whale deaths equally. According to NOAA Fisheries, since June 7, 2017, an unusually high number of North Atlantic right whales died, primarily in Canadian. Of the 12 deaths in Canada and eight in the United States, none were reported in the Gulf of Maine.
Whatever flaws the regulatory system may contain, Maine lobstermen can’t just opt out of participating, Keliher said, if they hope to have some impact on how the coming rules will affect the industry.
Currently, lobstermen are allowed to fish a maximum of 800 traps and, in most areas, are not limited to the minimum number they attach together in a single trawl. Several options for reductions in traps and increasing the minimum number of traps that can be fished in a single group, or trawl, and the right alternative may vary from one part of the state to another.
The proposals under consideration include the use of the weak rope toppers outside the three mile limit and establishing minimum trawl lengths depending on how far from shore they are used. The required minimum trawl lengths would decrease, in most cases, if fishermen agreed to cut the current 800-trap limit.
In state waters, inside the three-mile line, fishermen would be able to fish “pairs,” “triples” or “quads” depending on trap limit reductions to as low as 350 per fisherman. Out to 12 miles, the minimum trawl could be as low as 10 traps. Beyond the 12-mile line, fishermen might be able to fish 20-trap trawls if the trap limit were reduced to 400 but could be forced to fish trawls with as many as 40 traps if the trap limit were unchanged.
Those numbers didn’t sit well with many fishermen but, like them or not, Keliher encouraged the audience to consider the proposals and voice their feedback to DMR or the zone council.
“Saying no means NMFS will tell you how to fish right to the beach,” Keliher said.
Deer Isle lobsterman Julie Eaton had a number of suggestions for DMR — including formally closing the inshore lobster fishery during the winter and early spring when little fishing occurs.
Eaton, who fishes alone, also criticized the proposed increase in the trawl lengths.
“Was any thought given to the glut of gear that’s going to develop and to the safety of the fishermen?” she asked. “How do you ask a man to risk breaking his arm hauling 20, 30, 40 traps?”
One lobsterman from Downeast suggested that DMR could permit “stacking” more than one license on a boat so that at least two fishermen would be on board to handle the longer trawls.
Eaton had another idea — cut the number of endlines a fisherman could use to 50 percent of the traps they buy license tags for “and fish any configuration you want.”
Keliher said the “endline tag system” that Eaton described might still be considered but that it was likely to have more of an effect on inshore fishermen, who generally fish shorter trawls such as pairs or triples, than on offshore lobstermen who already fish large trawls.
While fishermen offered several possible options to Keliher there seemed to be little agreement except on the idea that the NMFS process was broken.
Stonington lobsterman John Williams, a member of the Take Reduction Team, told the crowd that just about every suggestion made at the meeting had already been considered by the TRT.
“If we don’t tell them what we want, they’re going to put a rule on use,” he said. “We can survive as long as we keep fishing,” he added, but “we can’t when we can’t go.”
Keliher told the meeting that he needed suggestions from the zone council no later than July 15. DMR will consider proposals from the seven zone council, then come back for a second round of meetings in August.
“You all have some homework,” he told the fishermen.