ELLSWORTH — Efforts to find consensus over how to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglement in fishing gear without decimating the Maine lobster industry took a blow last week.
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) announced that it would not support a plan developed by the Department of Marine Resources “because it seeks reductions that exceed the documented risk posed by the Maine lobster fishery” and “creates unresolved safety and operational challenges for some sectors of the lobster industry,” MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron said in an email Saturday.
The MLA decision came late last week after DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher held a series of meetings with lobstermen in Ellsworth, Waldoboro and South Portland.
The meetings were held to present the department’s response to a proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service that would require a 50 percent reduction in the number of vertical endlines, which connect lobster traps to buoys on the surface, used by Maine lobstermen.
The goal, according to NMFS, was to reduce the risk of right whale entanglement in fishing gear by 60 percent.
Throughout the summer, DMR developed an alternative plan that called for many Maine lobstermen to “trawl up” by fishing more traps in strings attached to one or two endlines.
In federal waters far offshore, where a relatively small number of Maine lobstermen set gear, the plan called for trawls of as many as 24 traps.
Lobster industry advocates say the proposal goes too far and will have a negligible impact on reducing the risks faced by right whales.
“The MLA conducted a thorough analysis of fishing gear removed from entangled right whales, which revealed that lobster is the least prevalent gear,” McCarron said. “The MLA is also concerned the state’s plan creates unresolved safety and operational challenges for some sectors of the lobster industry.”
While the DMR proposal is less drastic than the 50 percent reduction in lines proposed by NMFS, many fishermen believe it is unsafe as well as unfair.
Fishing large trawls, the decks of smaller boats could be literally inundated with rope that, lobstermen say, could easily entangle fishermen. Many boats that fish offshore, lobstermen say, are simply too small to safely handle strings of 24 heavy traps.
The safety issue is only compounded by a requirement that every vertical line incorporates “weak links” with a breaking strength of no more than 1,700 pounds.
Research has shown that whales that become entangled in fishing gear can exert that much force and break free. Lobstermen have voiced fears that the lines will break when they try to haul lengthy trawls and that they will lose their traps and leave “ghost gear” on the bottom.
“The MLA commends DMR for its diligence in listening to the concerns of the industry and firmly believes that the state’s latest plan is a tremendous improvement over the options presented in June,” McCarron said. “The MLA will continue to provide constructive feedback to DMR and work with our members to draft a whale protection plan to address the varying risk to right whales across the Maine lobster fishery while minimizing the operational, safety and economic concerns identified by MLA’s members.”
In an email from DMR Monday morning, Keliher said, “We are pleased that MLA recognizes the proposal put forward by the state is a vast improvement over the options presented in June, and we appreciate the commitment by MLA to remain engaged in the process.”
While there may be disagreement over how much of a risk Maine lobster gear really creates for right whales, Keliher said DMR recognizes that the safety issues raised by fishermen are legitimate. He plans to establish a working group to address those “safety and operational concerns” at some point “in the near future.”
Throughout the process, MLA has made no secret of its view that neither the plan proposed by the NMFS Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) earlier in the year nor the DMR plan accurately reflects the “documented risk” to whales posed by the Maine lobster industry.
“Like MLA,” Keliher said, “we were also concerned about data analyses presented to the TRT and our plan reflects the department’s own assessment of data associated with risk.”
Despite MLA’s rejection, DMR will present its plan, with minor revisions based on comments it has received from the lobster industry, to NMFS by the end of November. And, despite its vote last week, McCarron said, “MLA remains committed to playing its part in a comprehensive, effective whale conservation plan that enables right whales to recover and thrive.”
Just what that will be will be up to the federal fisheries regulators and, in all likelihood, to U.S District Court Judge James E. Boasberg, who is hearing several lawsuits in Washington, D.C., against NMFS brought by the Conservation Law Foundation and other conservation groups.
In a decision filed at the end of October, Boasberg rejected a request by NMFS for more time to develop comprehensive whale protection rules and ordered the agency to immediately close two areas off Massachusetts recently reopened to gillnet fishing.
The same judge is hearing other cases aimed directly at lobster fishing.
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained an error. The Department of Marine Resources right whale protection plan calls for a proposed maximum trawl size of 24 lobster traps set beyond the 12-mile limit.