ELLSWORTH — A proposed rule released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Dec. 30 aims to lower North Atlantic right whale entanglements in commercial fishing lines. Its release follows two years of research, public meetings and comment.
Federal regulators found the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) proposal submitted last January to be lacking — by 8 percent.
NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service seeks a 60 percent risk reduction to whales while the Maine DMR plan would only achieve a 52 percent reduction, NOAA informed Maine DMR in January 2020. Both proposals increase the number of traps per trawl line to reduce the number of vertical lines in the ocean, allow for gear marking to identify which state a whale fatality occurred in, require weak links in lines that would allow an entangled whale to break free and provide for seasonal closures in one lobster management area (LMA).
In the year since the DMR plan was rejected, the agency has been working with Maine fishermen on new recommendations.
“While NOAA’s proposed rule largely mirrors Maine’s proposed plan, we have concerns over the loss of equivalencies we included for trawls from 3-12 miles from shore, and the inclusion of a restricted area in LMA 1. We will be analyzing the basis for these proposed changes as well as their impact, and will include any findings in our comments,” DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher told The American.
Under NOAA, the National Marine Fisheries Service is charged with upholding provisions in the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
But Maine lobstermen have long held that they are not the ones killing whales.
“There’s not a fisherman out there that wants to harm a whale,” fisherman James Hanscom said. A Zone B Lobster Council member from Bar Harbor, Hanscom has fished groundfish “up and down the coast” and lobstered off Mount Desert Island for three decades. He said he has “never seen a right whale before in my life.”
Determining how whale mortalities occur is not clear cut. Of the 33 right whales killed since 2017, only three had gear on them, pointing to line entanglements as the cause of death. Two of these deaths were in Canada and one offshore in Virginia Beach. Five deaths were from probable or suspected line entanglement, 10 deaths point to vessel strikes and no cause could be determined in 13 of the deaths. None of the whales were found in Maine waters.
The proposed gear marking rule would identify where gear found on a dead whale came from, but not reduce whale deaths. For that, NOAA proposes increasing the number of traps on trawl lines to reduce the number of vertical lines in the ocean. Vertical lines connect traps on the sea floor to buoys on the surface. The proposed rule also calls for inserting weak points in the vertical lines. For traps set from the Maine exemption line to 12 miles offshore, NOAA proposes two weak points in buoy lines. Beyond 12 miles in LMAs 1 and 2, NOAA proposes one weak point 35 percent down the line.
Lobstermen say adding more weight to trawl lines from more traps isn’t safe.
“I don’t think the general public and I know NOAA has no idea what dealing with 25 trawls on a 40-foot boat [is like],” Hanscom said. “It’s a massive strain. It’s just straightforward dangerous.”
Hanscom warns that increasing federal regulations and pressure on the commercial fishery come at a cost to coastal fishing communities where lobstering is the economic engine.
“If you take Deer Isle-Stonington, Steuben, Jonesport, Harrington, these little towns are lobstering and boatbuilding [towns],” Hanscom said. “If this industry goes under or gets slowed down dramatically, these small towns on the coast of Maine are going to get wiped out. People in northern and western Maine need to realize it. It’s scary business. It’s terrifying.”
But conservationists argue that the federal government must take immediate action to protect the critically endangered whales.
“The window to save this species is closing,” said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, in a statement after the organization joined a petition in December seeking immediate emergency regulatory action. “The federal government must declare this situation what it is — an emergency — and take action to protect these animals now.”
NOAA will hold a virtual public information meeting on the proposed rule focused on southern Maine on Jan. 19 and one on northern Maine on Jan. 20, from 6 to 9 p.m. Register for the meetings at www.fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-mid-atlantic/gotowebinar-registration-and-joining-instructions. Public hearings will follow in February. NOAA is accepting public comments on the proposal until March 1. Instructions for sending in public comments and more on NOAA’s proposed rule may be found at www.fisheries.noaa.gov/action/proposed-rule-amend-atlantic-large-whale-take-reduction-plan-reduce-risk-serious-injury-and.