ELLSWORTH — Nearly 10 months ago, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher shocked Maine lobstermen with an announcement that the National Marine Fisheries Service had determined that right whale mortalities resulting from interactions with fishing gear would have to be reduced by 60 to 80 percent.
In late spring, the fisheries service proposed rules recommended by its Large Whale Take Reduction Team that would force lobstermen to reduce the number of vertical buoy lines in the water by as much as 50 percent and use weaker rope.
Those rules raised safety and practicality concerns within the fishing community and many lobstermen said they would have little or no impact on whale mortalities in the Gulf of Maine.
Last week, DMR submitted a detailed counterproposal to the federal fisheries agency that, according to Keliher, addressed those issues.
“This proposal is the result of a rigorous analysis of data combined with critically important input from industry,” Keliher said Friday. “The outcome is a plan that will not only protect right whales, but will also safeguard the lives and livelihoods of Maine fishermen.”
The draft regulations released by the fisheries service last spring called for lobstermen to “trawl up” and fish several traps connected together for each buoy line.
The requirement would have applied to all waters including inshore areas where whales are virtually never seen and where many lobstermen fish from boats too small to safely haul long trawls.
The danger comes not just from the weight of several heavy traps hanging off the side of a boat, but from the risk that a fisherman might be entangled in what could amount to hundreds of feet of line, or more, lying on the deck.
The DMR proposal would allow the department the flexibility to develop measures that would reduce the supposed risk of entanglement of North Atlantic right whales in lobster gear, and minimize the potential for serious injury or mortality if such a rare event occurred. It also would take into account the unique fishing practices, differing oceanographic conditions and safety concerns along the Maine coast.
The proposal also calls for rapid implementation of extensive, monthly reporting by all lobster harvesters to help fisheries regulators develop more targeted, effective whale protection measures in the future. Currently, just 10 percent of Maine lobster license holders — chosen at random annually — are required to complete harvester reporting.
The DMR proposal also calls for a system of marking lobster gear that would be unique to Maine rather than a coastwide marking system. The unique markings would allow regulators to determine whether gear in which a whale might be entangled actually came from the Maine lobster fishery. The marking system has already been implemented by DMR for the 2020 fishing season.
An analysis of data collected over nearly two decades indicates that the entanglement risk increases as the distance from the shore increases, with the greatest risk, to the extent it exists, outside the three-mile state waters limit.
With that in mind, the DMR proposal calls for increasing restrictions the farther offshore gear is fished.
Between the shore and the so-called “exemption line” established in 2007, an area that encompasses roughly 70 percent of the state’s waters, no change in fishing practice would be required. In submitting the proposal, DMR cited concerns both for safety and the economic impact of trawling up on the generally smaller boats that fish in the near shore area.
In a narrow sliver of state waters lying between the exemption line and the three-mile limit of state waters, lobstermen would be required to fish a minimum of three traps per single vertical endline. According to the department, the three-trap trawl addresses the safety concerns of small-boat, state-waters fishermen while still reducing the number of vertical endlines and the associated risk to right whales.
Between three and six miles offshore, lobstermen would be required to fish trawls with a minimum of eight traps with two endlines or four traps on a single endline.
“Longer trawls recognize higher whale sightings in federal waters while the flexibility to fish four versus eight traps supports diversity of fishing practices and ensures equivalent conservation value,” DMR said in announcing its proposal.
Between 6 and 12 miles offshore, the minimum trawl length would increase to 15 traps with two endlines or eight traps with a single endline. Based on comments from fishermen collected over several meetings throughout the state, DMR said that this flexibility in trawl length offers “increased whale protection and considers fishermen safety” as some boats fishing in this zone are not able to haul and stow 15 traps safely.
The strictest rules would apply beyond 12 miles offshore — where larger vessels fish — with a requirement for a minimum of 25 traps per trawl with two vertical endlines. The original federal proposal could have required a minimum trawl of 40 traps connected by literally miles of line.
In addition to limiting trawl size, the DMR proposal would require the use of “weak links” with a breaking strength of 1,700 pounds in vertical lines. The number and placement of the weak points — knots, splices and mechanical connectors could all qualify — varies with the distance from shore where the gear is set.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the DMR proposal is a request that federal fisheries regulators recognize a “Conservation Equivalency and an Individual Safety Program” to allow the state’s seven lobster management zone councils to adopt measures that take local conditions and fishing practices into account while still achieving conservation outcomes equivalent to the general statewide requirements.
The state also is asking for the flexibility to address safety concerns arising from the federal regulations on an individual basis that achieve the same reduction of risk to whales while still allowing for shorter trawls.
“What we’re looking for now is the recognition from the federal agency to say ‘we also understand that from east to west, from inshore to offshore, there are different oceanographic conditions and fishing practices and the diversity of fleet that also needs to be recognized,’” Stonington lobsterman and state Rep. Genevieve McDonald told Maine Public Broadcasting last week.
The new DMR proposal has generated a busy meeting schedule for lobstermen.
The plan was the number one topic on the agenda for a meeting of the Lobster Advisory Council that was scheduled for late Tuesday afternoon in Augusta.
Several Zone Council meetings were also scheduled primarily to introduce lobstermen around the state to the DMR proposal.
This week, the Zone C council is scheduled to meet Thursday at 6 p.m. at Deer Isle-Stonington High School.
Two more Downeast council meetings are scheduled for next week: Zone A on Tuesday, Jan. 14, at 5 p.m. at Washington Academy in East Machias; and Zone B on Wednesday, Jan. 15, at 6 p.m. at Mount Desert Island High School. Also scheduled to meet next week is the Zone E Council on Jan. 13.
Meetings are scheduled for the Zone F Council on Jan. 21 and the Zone G Council on Jan. 22.
The Zone D Council will meet Tuesday, Feb. 4, in the Rockland Ferry Terminal.