ELLSWORTH — In March, NOAA Fisheries announced that the number of vertical lines connecting surface buoys to, primarily, lobster traps would have to be reduced by as much as 60 percent off the New England coast and in the Gulf of Maine to protect endangered right whales from entanglement in fishing gear.
More recently, the fisheries service’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) recommended a panoply of whale protection measures for Maine’s lobster fishery that include removing 50 percent of vertical lines from the Gulf of Maine and the use of weak rope at the top of the remaining lines.
This week, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher began meeting with lobstermen up and down the coast to gather regional input on how best to achieve those goals. He doesn’t have much time to gather those opinions and formulate a plan.
By September, DMR will have to make its recommendations to NOAA if the department wants them considered by the federal agency as it drafts new regulations.
On Tuesday, Keliher was scheduled to meet with the Zone B Lobster Management Council in Trenton.
Tonight, Thursday, June 6, he is scheduled to meet with the Zone C Council at 6 p.m. in the Reach Performing Arts Center in the Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School.
Meetings with other zone councils are scheduled for: Monday, June 10, at Kennebunk High School; Thursday, June 13, at the Wiscasset Middle High School; Tuesday, June 18, at Washington Academy in East Machias; Thursday, June 20, at Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport; and Thursday, June 27, at the Freeport Performing Arts Center in Freeport. All of the meetings are scheduled for 6 p.m.
The Maine lobster industry has been dealing with whale protection measures for more than a decade.
In 2008, after a long fight, most lobstermen were required to rig their gear using sinking rope for the groundlines connecting traps together, to install weak links in their buoy lines so that entangled whales might break free and to mark their buoy lines. Single traps were banned in offshore waters.
Those restrictions look positively quaint compared with the proposals DMR outlined at a meeting of the Lobster Advisory Council last week in Augusta.
Basically, to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water lobstermen will either have to fish fewer traps or rig longer trawls — groups of traps — to each floating buoy line.
Currently, Maine lobstermen are allowed to fish up to 800 traps. Except in a few areas, such as around Mount Desert Rock, there is no minimum trawl length, though single traps generally may be fished in waters close to shore.
Triples and five-trap trawls are relatively common, though this varies along the coast. In deep waters, 3 to 12 miles offshore and beyond, lobstermen in bigger boats may fish trawls with a dozen or even 20 traps. That is relatively rare, but longer trawls are likely to become more common no matter what.
According to a DMR scenario presented to the advisory council and reported in the Portland Press Herald, to maintain the current 800-trap limit, lobstermen would have to fish at least four traps per trawl inside the three mile limit. The minimum trawl length would be 20 traps between three and 12 miles offshore and 40 traps beyond the 12-mile line. Each trawl would be marked with a single vertical line. This plan would reduce the number of lines in the water by 53 percent.
A more draconian measure would allow for shorter trawls — though triples would be the shortest — at the expense of reducing the individual 800-trap limit.
According to DMR, if the trap limit were reduced to 400, fishermen would be allowed to fish triples from the beach out to three miles, 10 trap trawls between 3 and 12 miles, and 20 trap trawls beyond 12 miles. That would cut the number of lines in the water by an estimated 56 percent.
Although he has already gotten several earfuls, Keliher will find out how lobstermen in each part of the state feel about the possible options over the next three weeks.