By Stephen Rappaport
ELLSWORTH — With the National Oceanic Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) under a fast approaching, court-imposed deadline to develop new whale protection rules, the Zone C Lobster Management Council held a special meeting on the internet in late September to get an update on the situation from Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher and consider a zone-specific plan for gear modifications that will likely be required by NMFS.
On Aug. 19, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg gave NMFS nine months to craft new rules to protect endangered right whales from entanglement in lobster fishing gear. In April, Boasberg had ruled that NMFS violated the federal Endangered Species Act in 2014 when it adopted new rules governing the lobster fishery by failing to adequately consider the risk right whales might face if they become entangled in the vertical lines that connect lobster traps on the sea floor to marker buoys on the surface.
The judge vacated the NMFS “biological opinion” required by the ESA, which allowed continuation of the lobster fishery as it is currently practiced.
In August, the judge gave NMFS and the lobster industry until May 31, 2020, to come up with a new biological opinion and new lobster fishing regulations. He ordered NMFS to submit progress reports to the court every 60 days beginning Sept. 30.
For the past several months, the Department of Marine Resources has been working with the lobster industry and NMFS to develop whale protection rules that would reduce the number of vertical buoy lines in the water and satisfy the court but still allow for a viable lobster fishery. One element of those rules involves setting a minimum number of traps that may be fished on a trawl, or group of traps, marked by a vertical buoy line.
Earlier this year, DMR developed a minimum trawl length proposal it will likely submit to NMFS within the next several days but, no surprise, the one plan fits all approach was unpopular with lobstermen because fishing conditions vary widely along the Maine coast.
DMR asked the state’s seven Lobster Zone Management Councils to come up with zone-specific proposals for minimum trawl lengths and for the number of “weak points” inserted in buoy lines so that they will break if a whale was entangled. Each zone set up a working group to submit its recommendations to the zone council for approval.
Last week, the Zone C council met to consider the recommendations of its working group. Speaking over an internet connection, Keliher told council members that he thought a zone-byzone
approach was the best way to proceed and that there was no time to waste.
“The big thing,” Keliher said, “is the zone has to think about taking a position today.”
Both the DMR and zone plans would set the minimum number of traps required on a trawl, and the number of weak points, based on the distance from shore where the traps were set.
Under both plans, there would be no minimum in areas up most bays, but from a predetermined “exemption line” out to 3 miles offshore DMR would set the minimum at three traps while the zone would allow lobstermen to fish pairs of traps. Outside 12 miles, the DMR plan would set a 25trap minimum trawl while the zone plan would allow 20 traps. To compensate for this difference, and to get an equivalent reduction in the number of vertical lines in the water, the zone plan calls for slightly longer minimum trawl lengths than DMR’s plan between 3 and 12 miles offshore.
The smaller minimum trawls in offshore waters are a matter of safety, some say of life and death, to lobstermen. More traps on each trawl would dangerously increase the amount of gear small boats would have to carry when fishing offshore.
At the other end of the scale, lobsterman John Williams said, for lobstermen who fish around many of the offshore islands in Zone C, “pairs will be a real help for them between the exemption line and 3 miles.”
The trawl length issue is complicated by the requirement that buoy lines have “weak points” that break at 1,700 pounds tension.
DMR has been testing several different weak links ranging in complexity from a simple sheet bend (a type of knot) and loop configuration to a plastic “dog bone” connector that breaks in the middle, to a more complex “time and tension” line cutter for offshore waters. The council’s consensus was that the sheet bend was the way to go.
Keliher said DMR could submit the zone plan noting that its acceptance hinges on approval of the sheet bend.
Zone-specific minimum trawl limits create their own problems.
“If you fish in multiple zones it’s going to be a nightmare,” Stonington lobsterman Richard Larabee said.
“You’ll just have to jump through the hoops to fish in a neighboring zone,” he said.