AUGUSTA — Inshore lobstermen will get a break when the federal government adopts new whale protection rules, but it remains to be seen for how long.
On Thursday, May 2, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher announced on the DMR website that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will delay imposing any whale protection rules to see whether measures likely to be adopted by NOAA Fisheries offer sufficient protection to endangered right whales.
Late in April, NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) recommended a 50 percent reduction in the number of vertical endlines (which connect lobster traps on the sea bottom to marker buoys on the surface) in the water. The TRT also called for the use of weaker rope, likely for the upper 75 percent, of the endlines that remain so that if whales swim into the rope it will break.
According to DMR spokesman Jeff Nichols, while the 50 percent reduction in endlines applies to both inshore and offshore fisheries, “the weak rope provision targets federal waters,” outside the three-mile limit.
Keliher said “the outcome for Maine’s lobster industry could have been far worse.”
Some members of the TRT pushed for the use of “ropeless” lobster traps, closing large areas to lobster fishing — two of them in Maine — and requiring weak rope throughout the fishery, even inshore where whales have rarely, if ever, been found.
According to Keliher, Maine delegates to the TRT convinced the group that cuts in the number of traps in the water “do not result in significant conservation benefits for right whales,” so the TRT focused on other measures.
Over the next few weeks, DMR will prepare “a range of draft options” aimed at achieving the proposed conservation measures and still workable for fishermen. Keliher plans to hold a series of meetings, probably next month, to get input from fishermen on workable solutions.
“These conversations will be difficult and sacrifices will be necessary,” Keliher wrote, adding that with input from lobstermen he was “confident” that it would be possible to develop “a plan that accomplishes the necessary conservation objectives and sustains Maine’s vital lobster industry.”