ELLSWORTH — Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher met with a group of roughly 75 lobstermen and lobster industry representatives at The Grand Monday evening to discuss proposed measures to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Keliher was on hand to explain a plan that the state will file with the National Marine Fisheries Service later this month in response to demands that Maine lobstermen substantially reduce the number of vertical trap buoy lines in the water to reduce the risk of entanglements.
Many in the audience Monday don’t believe there is a risk and urged Keliher to resist pressure from fisheries regulators and fight back against the demands that would force lobstermen to fish more traps in groups, or trawls, with weaker rope leading to surface buoys.
“You’ve just got to buck up and say we can’t do this, it’s just not going to work,” Bar Harbor lobsterman Jim Hanscom told Keliher.
That’s not an option, Keliher said. Last week, the federal judge overseeing a lawsuit to force NOAA to comply with the federal Endangered Species Act and move more quickly to protect right whales wrote that “humans have brought the North Atlantic right whale to the brink of extinction.”
The judge later ruled that areas of Cape Cod Bay that have been closed to lobster fishing must stay closed despite a request from NOAA that the ruling should be delayed so the agency could work out the details of a wider whale protection rule.
Right whales also are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The same judge would likely rule in any dispute between the state and federal fisheries regulators about whether Maine was doing enough to protect endangered right whales.
Scientists estimate that only about 400 of the giant animals survive and evidence shows that the greatest dangers the whales face are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.
According to Keliher, Maine’s lobster fishery is responsible for 64 percent of all the vertical lines along the East Coast of the U.S. and for 90 percent of the lines in the vast offshore lobster management areas in Northeast waters established by fisheries regulators.
Last spring, the fisheries service called for a 50 percent reduction in the number of Maine lobster trap buoy lines (endlines) in an effort to reduce the risk of whale injuries or deaths by 60 percent.
Over the past few months, DMR has developed a plan that would reduce endlines by 25 percent but, with reductions targeted to areas where whales are most likely to be found.
The plan calls for lobstermen to “trawl up” and fish larger strings of traps the farther off the coast they set their gear.
Inside an “exemption line,” essentially up bays and rivers, lobstermen could, if they wish, continue to fish single or paired traps as they do now.
Between the exemption line and the three-mile limit of state waters, the minimum trawl size would be three traps on a single endline. Between three and six miles offshore, lobstermen could fish trawls with four traps with a single endline or eight traps with two endlines. Between 6 and 12 miles, trawls would be 16 traps and beyond 12 miles trawls would have to have at least 24 traps.
The plan also calls for endlines to have a maximum breaking strength of 1,700 pounds — either through the use of “weak rope” or the inclusion of two weak points between the surface and the bottom.
Over the past several months, DMR has been testing a variety of ropes, knot and splice configurations and weak link devices to determine what options might be available for lobstermen fishing in differing conditions to meet the 1,700-pound breaking strength requirement.
Several fishermen object to coupling the weak rope proposal to the requirement for larger trawls.
“What do we do if we part off traps offshore?” Jonesport lobsterman Rock Alley, president of the Maine Lobster Union, asked Keliher. He said that the combination of larger trawls and weak ropes would result in lots of “ghost traps” lost on the bottom if the rope broke when a lobsterman tried to haul traps that were snagged on the bottom.
Stonington lobsterman Julie Eaton said the proposal for longer trawls posed a danger to lobstermen fishing offshore or in small boats because of the large amount of rope that would fill boat decks and increase the risk of lobstermen being tangled up and pulled overboard.
“It’s dangerous, dangerous, dangerous,” Eaton said after the meeting.
Keliher said DMR was aware of the problem and was considering how to address it with NOAA.
“We’ll push back against the feds if it becomes a safety issue,” he said.
Cutler lobsterman Kristan Porter, president of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association, made it clear that he was speaking only for himself when he said “Weak links suck, but give it a try. It’s the best we can do at this time.”
Underlying the practical objections to the DMR proposal is the belief voiced by many lobstermen that there will be no reduction in the risk to right whales because the endangered whales do not visit the waters where lobstermen set their gear.
Although many, if not most, whales have been entangled in fishing gear at some point, scientists say, there is little or no hard evidence that the gear came from the Maine lobster industry.
As part of its proposal for NOAA, DMR will require fishermen to use distinctive colored marks on the endlines that would be unique to Maine’s fishery. Gear fished close to shore would have an additional mark to distinguish it from gear fished offshore. The markings would offer evidence of whether or not gear that ensnared a whale came from Maine.
“There are no whales,” Keliher said. “We’re making the case. We need to basically put our money where our mouth is to say no rope that you’re ever going to find, if you ever find any,” came from the Maine lobster fishery.
In addition to the trawling, weak rope and marking requirements, the DMR proposal would eventually require 100 percent harvester reporting and some form of vessel tracking for lobstermen fishing in federal waters.
Implementation of the tracking requirement would be dependent on obtaining funding from the federal or state governments or other sources and would be unlikely to be operational before 2024.
After meetings scheduled for Waldoboro on Tuesday and South Portland on Wednesday, Keliher said, DMR will take the information it gleaned back to Augusta and then put a final proposal in NOAA’s hands later this month. Even so, there is no guarantee that the plan will be accepted by NOAA, or that it won’t be challenged in court.
“I do not like the position we’re in,” Keliher said. “The fact that two federal laws make us do this every five years is problematic as well.”