BAR HARBOR — Lobster fishermen in Zone B voiced concerns on Jan. 15 about losing traps, among other issues, if they adhere to recently proposed whale-protection rule changes presented by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR).
The changes are intended to reduce incidents of right whales becoming entangled in trap lines.
More than 40 fishermen gathered at the Zone B Lobster Management Council meeting at Mount Desert Island High School Jan. 15. On the agenda was discussion of the DMR’s proposal, which has been submitted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as an alternative to rules drafted by the National Marine Fisheries Service in response to a lawsuit filed by an environmental group that contends current practices are not in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
“This proposal is a culmination of months and months of meetings with the industry [fishing industry] and industry input and our own analysis of data,” said Jeff Nichols, communications director for the state’s Department of Marine Resources. “We’ve put forth a proposal that we feel creates protections where risks really occur.”
The fishermen in the room expressed frustration with what many said is another unnecessary and, likely, costly regulation placed on their industry.
After nearly two hours of discussion and review, Zone B Council members voted 7-1 in favor of the proposal, despite misgivings about a requirement for “weak points” in the rope lobstermen employ.
“With the weaker links, you’re going to have to be a lot more careful and fish slower,” said David Horner, chairman of the Zone B Council, after the vote.
Horner said changes made almost a decade ago, also with the goal of preventing right whale entanglement, mandated use of sinking groundlines instead of floating ropes between traps. This requirement often led to lines getting caught on rocks on the ocean floor. The newly proposed rule would require insertion of weak points in certain places along the rope, or use of a lighter rope, so that it would snap under 1,700 pounds of pressure.
“When you’re trying to get it unstuck from the bottom, you would break the end line and not be able to get your traps,” said Horner. “This is not going to put fishermen out of business. It’s going to increase costs in lost traps and more equipment.”
With the average cost of a lobster trap being $125, with 10 traps on a trawl line that’s more than $1,200 sitting on the bottom of the ocean. Never mind the added loss of the catch inside.
The proposed rule changes include a weak point inserted halfway down on vertical lines in state waters, two 1,700-pound weak points in the top half of the vertical lines in areas 3 to 12 miles from shore and a weak point one third of the way down on a vertical line when fishing 12 or more miles off shore.
According to Horner, where the weak point is inserted in the line can lead to line breaks and traps lost in the ocean.
The proposal submitted to NMFS by the DMR also addresses the minimum number of traps allowed on a trawl, which would vary by distance from shore, gear marking, harvester reporting, electronic tracking on federal vessels, “conservation equivalency” and individual safety programs. Conservation equivalency allows lobster management zones to come up with measures that would have the same desired conservation outcome as the proposed changes. This enables zone councils to come up with their own “suite of measures which work for their local fishing practices, oceanographic conditions and safety concerns,” the DMR proposal states.
“If they say you can have it [weak links] halfway down, you can use more rope,” Horner explained. “It’s not a great solution, but it might be the only one people will have. I don’t know how this will play out in practice.”
The worry about weak links isn’t confined to Zone B.
Stonington lobsterman Hilton Turner, former chairman of the Zone C Council, said that fishermen from his area “have no idea” how to make the weak links work in the real world.
Turner said his son fishes mostly in deep water some 30 miles offshore, where the proposed DMR rules would require a minimum trawl length of 25 traps with two endlines, each fitted with a weak link one-third of the way down.
One suggested way to meet the weak link requirement is to use smaller rope, with a lower breaking strength, for the endlines. The problem comes if the traps get hung up on some obstruction on the bottom, or if some other lobsterman’s gear is accidentally set on gear already on the bottom.
“He told me the rope will break if someone sets on top of him,” Turner said.