ELLSWORTH – In an early January letter to Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher, the National Marine Fisheries Service rejected a Maine plan to reduce the risk of endangered right whales becoming entangled in lobster gear, saying the plan did not go far enough.
Keliher told the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee about the letter from Michael Pentony, regional administrator of the NMFS Great Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office in Gloucester, Mass., last Tuesday, a full month after he received it. It was the first time the letter had been publicly disclosed.
On Wednesday, Keliher wrote to Pentony asking NMFS to consider the impact of whale protection measures Maine has implemented over the past several years when assessing the reduction of risk to the whales.
NMFS had determined last spring that the lobster fishery would have to reduce the risk of entanglements by 60 percent. The plan DMR submitted would cut the number of vertical buoy lines in the water by 25 percent and require many of those lines to have a reduced breaking strength. According to NMFS, the changes required by the DMR plan would only reduce the risk to whales by 52 percent.
After briefing the Marine Resources Committee, Keliher wrote to Pentony arguing that NMFS had not taken into account the DMR proposal to require a “weak link” in vertical lines in waters close to the shore when calculating the level of risk reduction. Keliher also said NMFS should consider the impact of many risk reduction measures Maine has already imposed on fishing in nearshore, “exempted” waters. Those measures include restrictions on the use of floating rope on the surface or as groundlines connecting a series of traps, the requirement that all buoy lines be built of sinking rope or have only a 600-pound breaking strength. According to Keliher, those measures “provide additional risk reduction inside exempted waters” and provide benefits “above and beyond” current federal whale protection requirements.
While Keliher told Pentony that the state would continue to work with NMFS in developing whale protection rules, there are some in the lobster industry who are critical of the way DMR has dealt with the whale rule issue.
“The Maine Lobstering Union is very frustrated by the actions of DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher,” David Sullivan, a union spokesman, said in an email last Thursday. “While we applaud Commissioner Keliher” for rejecting the initial federal whale protection rules proposed last spring, he said, “we need to do more to protect our Maine Lobstermen.”
According to Sullivan, Keliher “withheld” Pentony’s letter from the lobster industry during the month of January when all the Lobster Management Zone Councils met throughout the state, primarily to discuss the whale rules, without access to “all the information they needed.”
It is too early to know what response, if any, Keliher’s letter will bring. NMFS is not expected to publish its proposed whale protection rules until July, but litigation filed by several conservation organizations now pending in federal court could speed up that timetable.