A breeching North Atlantic right whale explodes from the water. GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES PHOTO

Whale protection, trawl limits entangle Zone C lobstermen

DEER ISLE — October is a peak month, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, for feistiness in Maine’s population of hornets and wasps. Lobstermen too, judging by last week’s meeting of the Zone C Lobster Management Council at Deer Isle-Stonington High School.

The principal irritant is the still-simmering conflict over a rule adopted by DMR at the beginning of August establishing a five-trap maximum trawl limit for a 60-square-mile rectangle centered, more or less, on Mount Desert Rock.

The trawl limit was proposed by the Zone B management council last winter. The problem is that much of the western part of that area is fished by lobstermen based in Zone C — primarily Stonington and Deer Isle — who bitterly opposed adoption of a rule that Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher called “one of the more difficult decisions that I have made.”

Last week, the Zone C council reviewed a proposed rule change that would eliminate the five-trap maximum in a large area west of Mount Desert Rock. While that might improve the situation for some Zone C lobstermen, the underlying problem reflects unhappiness on the part of lobstermen from Zone B, with limited entry for new fishermen, over the number of lobstermen from Zone C who fish across the zone line in waters they fished before the zones were ever established.

Lobstermen may fish 49 percent of their traps in a zone other than their home zone and, until recently, there was no limit on the number of new licenses that could be issued to fish in Zone C.

“We’ve fought with Zone B a long time and they will never be happy,” said David Tarr, a council member from Brooklin.

While the trawl rule was at the forefront of last week’s debate, lurking just below the surface was a technical memorandum issued late last month by the NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center. It suggested that changes in lobster gear mandated to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from fishing gear entanglement were not working. Rather, the memorandum concluded that lobstermen had switched to stronger buoy lines and worsened the problem.

The 24-page memorandum was issued just in time for a meeting this week of the NOAA Fisheries Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team in Providence, R.I. On the agenda are at least seven proposals to modify the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. Most of them call for tougher restrictions on when, where and how lobstermen fish.

The meeting will consider proposed rule changes to allow fishing with “ropeless” traps that do not use vertical lines in waters off the Massachusetts coast that are currently closed to trap fishing.

The announced goal of the proposed rule is to determine whether the change “would provide an economic benefit or incentive for buoy-lineless fishing development,” but “everything is on the table,” Sarah Cotnoir, the DMR lobster resource coordinator, told the Zone C council.

In addition to the use of ropeless traps, which would be raised from the sea floor by buoys triggered by radio signal or some other mechanism, proposals offered by a variety of conservation groups that are under consideration include expanded time and area closures to keep trap gear — lobster and crab — out of the water whenever large whales are likely to be present.

Last week, Keliher sent a blistering response to the technical memorandum.

In a letter addressed to NOAA Fisheries Northeast Fisheries Science Center Director Jon Hare with copies to NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator Mike Pentony and NOAA Regional Protected Resources Division chief Mike Asaro, Keliher expressed “significant concerns about the scientific merit” of the memorandum.

First, Keliher said, the memorandum confines its review to the waters of the Gulf of Maine but provides “little context” about how the threatened whales “are utilizing expanded habitats in Canadian and Mid-Atlantic waters.”

Keliher also complained that the memorandum relied on outdated or incorrect data and was “inconsistent in its application and interpretation” of the data on which the memorandum relied.

“Most significantly,” the memorandum suggests that the gear regulations adopted in 2015 encouraged lobstermen to use “larger diameter rope,” presumably with a higher breaking strength, for their vertical buoy lines.

According to Keliher though, the data on which that conclusion was based came from a study of changes in rope manufacturing between 1994 and 2010, before any of the gear regulations were imposed.

The same study is the source of data claiming a high percentage of the whale population has become entangled in fishing gear. According to Keliher, the study provides “a 30-year retrospective” of entanglements prior to 2009. Another NOAA report the memorandum relies on covers the period from 2011 through 2015, “prior to the implementation of the vertical line rule.

Another problem, Keliher said, is that the memorandum conflates the increase in Maine lobster landings with an increase in fishing effort, particularly in “offshore” whale habitat.

DMR data shows that fishing effort “inshore” — up to 12 miles from the coast — has increased at five times the rate of fishing effort offshore (from 12 to about 40 miles from the coast.) What’s more, Keliher said, only 10 percent of Maine lobster fishermen, chosen at random, are required to supply DMR with logbooks reporting fishing effort and landings.

Keliher also criticized the memorandum for relying on Maine landings records to determine how much fishing was occurring offshore.

“It is unclear,” he wrote “why NOAA would choose to use state landings records for only one state that is dominated by inshore effort if seeking to accurately characterize offshore effort, as the majority of the truly ‘offshore’ effort is from permitholders in other states,” primarily Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Keliher raises other issues.

“The memo repeatedly points to an expanding range and increasing overlap with fisheries as sources of increased risk,” he wrote, but “Despite the changes in distribution (of the whale population), the only fishery considered for ‘increased’ overlap is the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery, despite … the fact that NOAA’s own observation resources have been diverted to Canada because of this shift” of the whale resource.

The memo also ignores risks from “unregulated fisheries (whales) encounter in the Bay of Fundy, on the Scotian Shelf and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence,” and the “devastating interactions” between whales and the Canadian snow crab fishery in 2017.

The problem that underlies virtually all of Keliher’s criticism is the many instances “where a more comprehensive data set is available but inexplicably not used.” The problem is especially acute since the memorandum bases its conclusions about entanglements only when the location of the entanglement has been identified.

“Focusing on only entanglements where the set location is known drastically limits an already small data set and could result in the misalignment of new regulations with the current entanglement risk” because it fails to distinguish between entanglements that occurred before or after the Maine industry switched to sinking groundlines between traps, in 2009, or reduced the number of vertical buoy lines in the water as required by the 2105 rule changes.

“I strongly believe the Maine lobster industry takes the threats to right whales seriously and will work to identify a meaningful solution appropriate to the risk posed by their fishery under current biological and environmental conditions and considering past regulatory actions,” Keliher wrote. “However, conclusions based on conjecture, without sound scientific basis, will alienate their critical participation in this process,” and result in regulations “that will result in very little conservation benefit for the right whale but come at great cost to the fishermen.”

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team was scheduled to meet from Tuesday to Friday of this week.

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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