ELLSWORTH — Lobstermen will have the chance to tell federal fisheries authorities just what they think about proposed whale protection rules that could force Maine fishermen to remove half of their buoy lines from the water.
NOAA Fisheries is about to begin the rulemaking process to change the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan.
The change is aimed at reducing the risk of death or injury to endangered North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine caused by entanglement in the vertical lines that connect lobster traps on the ocean floor to marker buoys on the surface. Humpback and finback whales are also considered to be at risk of entanglement.
Last spring, authorities announced that the risks had to be reduced by 60 percent and, that to accomplish that goal, Maine lobstermen would have to reduce the number of vertical buoy lines in the water by half.
Over the next few weeks, the fisheries service will hold a series of eight scoping meetings in Maine and elsewhere to get public comment on the proposals.
The first meeting is scheduled for Aug. 8 in Narragansett, R.I., but that will be followed by several sessions in Maine.
On Monday, Aug. 12, regulators will be at the University of Maine at Machias Performing Arts Center for a 6 p.m. session scheduled to last for three hours.
The next day, Tuesday, Aug. 13, a three-hour session is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Ellsworth High School.
At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 14, the NOAA Fisheries team will be at the Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro and at 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 15, a meeting is scheduled for South Portland High School.
According to the notice published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, July 31, regulators are especially interested in information about “operational challenges, time, and costs” that would be necessary to change over lobster gear to reduce the number of vertical endlines.
Of particular interest are issues related to the number of traps on a trawl (a group of connected traps), requiring modifications to endlines in the water so that they would be less likely to entangle whales and marking gear so that its origin would be easier to determine in the event of entanglement.
The plan to reduce endlines by 50 percent came out of a meeting of NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) last March and is identified by the fisheries service as a “near consensus” proposal. The consensus did not include the Department of Marine Resources or other Maine representatives to the TRT.
In a response to the proposal, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher held a series of late spring meetings with lobstermen throughout the state to get their views on the proposal. Keliher was particularly concerned to find out how the plan would affect fishing in different areas along the Maine coast and in the Gulf of Maine where bottom, weather and tidal conditions can differ significantly. He promised to come back to fishermen in August with area specific proposals to present to NOAA Fisheries.
The 50 percent reduction has drawn virtually unanimous opposition from the lobster industry and, in a rare nonpartisan showing, the governor, every member of Maine’s congressional delegations and many members of the Legislature have lined up to support the lobstermen.
In a statement issued prior to a July 21 lobstermen’s rally in Stonington, Governor Janet Mills ordered Keliher to conduct an assessment of the risk that Maine lobster fishing actually poses to the right whales and to develop proposals that reflect the real level of risk.
One objection to the federal proposals is that they are based on a risk assessment derived from statistical model that was not peer-reviewed before it was used and that Maine fishermen and DMR believe is seriously flawed.
According to published data, since 2010 changes in ocean conditions — primarily rising water temperatures — significantly changed the distribution of the tiny copepods that are the whales’ primary food source and, consequently, the distribution of the population of whales, from the Gulf of Maine to Canadian waters off Nova Scotia and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.