Meeting Roundup: February 2012

First published in the MLA Newsletter, February, 2012

Lobster Advisory Council

The Lobster Advisory Council met on January 3 in Hallowell. The Council opened the meeting with a unanimous vote to endorse Pat Keliher to serve as DMR commissioner.

The LAC’s lobster marketing subcommittee reported its progress on developing a strategy to improve marketing of Maine lobster. The subcommittee is developing a plan and a budget for marketing Maine lobster in retail, food service and international sectors. The LAC plans to hold outreach meetings with the industry in June to get feedback on the plan, and hopes to introduce legislation in the 126th Legislative session.

Colonel Fessenden reported that several new marine patrol officers will soon report for duty in York County and the midcoast region. The DMR has a significant short lobsters case which will be prosecuted through the new administrative suspension process overseen by the Secretary of State. Recent marine resource violation cases revealed that, under the Lobster Apprentice Program regulations, lobstermen suspended due to a violation of any marine resource law are moved to the bottom of the waiting list. The LAC unanimously voted to advise the Commissioner to amend the rules so that non-lobster violations do not affect an Apprentice’s waiting list status.

The DMR updated the LAC on the status of the shrimp harvest. The ASMFC has severely limited the 2012 shrimp quota. DMR has been working with the shrimp industry, both trawlers and trappers, to stretch out the landings of that quota. The DMR has limited the time of day that trawlers are allowed to fish in hopes of slowing the catch so that trappers have a chance to land some shrimp when the trap season opens on February 1. The DMR is conducting dockside monitoring and analyzing weekly landings data to monitor shrimp quality and quota and will meet with shrimp fishermen to respond to additional issues as they arise.

DMR is moving forward with Chapter 30 River Herring regulations to implement ASMFC River Herring Plan (Amendment 2). Maine’s priorities remain focused on opening historic habitats and maintaining historic municipal runs.

Three lobster related bills are to be heard by the Marine Resources Committee:  LD 1579 An Act to Amend the Lobster Promotion Council, LD 1709 An Act To Amend the Limited-entry Program for Taking Lobsters in the Monhegan Lobster Conservation Area and LD 1609 Act To Ensure the Safety of Bait Used in Maine’s Fishery. The LAC voted unanimously to oppose LD 1579 and unanimously to support LD 1609 and LD 1709.

Deirdre Gilbert presented a draft of the department’s request for proposals to contract for an independent analysis of the lobster industry’s limited entry system, as required by the Legislature. The draft reflects feedback from numerous meetings that the DMR held with the lobster industry including the LAC, zone councils and industry associations. It requests an analysis of the effect of the limited entry system on Maine’s coastal economy, the efficacy of the existing entry program, the effects of latent licenses and tags, the ramifications of the current age structure of lobstermen, and recommendations on changes or to correct deficiencies in the current entry system.

Large Whale Take Reduction Team

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team met for five days in Providence, Rhode Island during the week of January 9. The purpose of the meeting was to develop options to manage vertical line risk and enhanced gear marking for fixed gear fisheries from Maine to Florida. NMFS plans to have a proposed rule available for comment in 2013 and a final rule implemented in 2014.

This TRT meeting had a decidedly different tone, with members of the team showing a willingness to work with Maine. This was in large part due to the significant progress made by Maine DMR and MLA in bringing forward new research and data. The expanded Maine TRT delegation included two lobstermen – Dwight Carver from Beals Island and Jim Tripp from South Thomaston –which made a strong positive impression. Veteran TRT members from Maine included Terry Stockwell from DMR, Stevie Robbins III from Stonington and Patrice McCarron from MLA. Maine’s efforts were further supported by Erin Summers and Sarah Cotnoir from Maine DMR.

The meeting opened with research updates. NMFS provided an entanglement update for October 2010 to January 2012 during which time 14 new right whale entanglement cases were observed. Two of these new entanglements resulted in mortality; three other whales were found dead during this time period. NMFS presented research documenting the operational issues of setting gear without vertical lines and using grapples to retrieve the gear as well as failed research efforts to identify high-tech methods of gear marking.

Woods Hole presented an update on the development of an independent model to assess the risk of right whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear, developed in partnership with the MLA. Researchers will hold meetings with the Maine lobster industry during February and March 2012 to get feedback on this model. Maine DMR provided research results on a variety of projects including surveys to document gear configuration and the number of vertical lines, fishery-independent buoy count surveys, acoustic monitoring, trawling up field experiments and investigations on weak top rope. The Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction presented the gear characterization report of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Fishery prepared by the MLA, research on scarring rates and various rope analyses. Preliminary data indicates that rope with a breaking strength below 4,000 pounds may be less harmful to whales than ropes of higher breaking strength.

NMFS provided a summary and analysis of several vertical line proposals submitted during the scoping process in September for consideration. Maine DMR submitted a vertical line risk proposal to require triples to be fished from 3 miles to 12 miles in Zones A through E, and 8 trap trawls in Zones F and G. Outside of 12 miles, the DMR proposed requiring triples in Zones A and B; 5 trap trawls in Zones C, D and E; 15 trap trawls in Zone F and 20 trap trawls in Zone G. A NMFS analysis found that the DMR proposal would result in a 14% reduction in vertical lines in regulated waters.

NMFS put forward an alternate proposal that included trawl limits in Maine’s non-exempt state waters, proposing that Zones A, E and G fish a minimum of pairs; Zones B, C and D triples; and Zone F a minimum of 4-trap trawls. The NMFS proposal included a minimum trawl length of five traps from 3 to 12 miles in Zones A through E and 10-trap trawls with two endlines in Zones E and F. Finally, NMFS proposed a minimum trawl length outside of 12 miles of 10-trap trawls with two endlines in Zones A through E; and 20-trap trawls with two endlines in Zones F and G. The NMFS proposal would result in a 43% endline reduction in regulated waters.

Maine representatives raised significant concern over the aggressive trawl minimums proposed by NMFS in inshore fishing grounds and developed an alternate proposal for review. The revised Maine plan proposed that all zones fish a minimum of pairs in non-exempt state waters, a minimum of triples from 3 to 6 miles from shore, a minimum of 10-trap trawls with two endlines beyond six miles in Zones A through E, and a minimum of 20-trap trawls beyond six miles in Zones F and G. This proposal would result in a 26% reduction in endlines, with the majority of endlines removed from offshore waters where the risk of a whale encountering lobster gear is highest. The DMR will further analyze this proposal and work with MLA to seek feedback on it from the industry. A revised proposal will be submitted to NMFS in late January for analysis and review by the TRT.

The TRT also considered proposals for gear marking. NMFS proposed an enhanced gear marking strategy for all fixed gear fisheries from Maine to Florida. NMFS proposed several scenarios which would require Maine lobstermen to mark their gear three times – in the top, middle and bottom portions of the line. All of the NMFS gear marking proposals would require gear marking for lobster gear fished inside the exemption line. DMR and MLA are seeking additional feedback on ideas to simplify an enhanced gear marking program with two marks on the line, while adding a unique mark to distinguish gear fished in Maine from other areas.

The deadline to submit updated vertical line risk reduction and gear marking proposals to NMFS came at the end of January. NMFS will analyze the proposals and make them available for review by the TRT and the public before NMFS begins the formal analysis of management options as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and proposed rule is expected in 2013 and will include an opportunity for public comment. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and final rule is scheduled for release and implementation in 2014.  Meeting materials, including copies of research presentations and vertical line risk reduction proposals can be viewed online at http://www.nero.noaa.gov/whaletrp/trt/meetings/2012meeting.html

Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association Annual Weekend

The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association held their Annual Weekend and Trade Show in Hyannis, Mass during the weekend of January 20th. The event was both fun and informative, and featured a successful trade show, seminars, a casino night and auction to support the Scholarship Fund. The MLA thanks them for their generosity in hosting us for the weekend.

Maine Lobstermen’s Association Board of Directors

The MLA Board of Directors met on January 24 in Belfast. The directors finalized plans for the MLA Annual Meeting, scheduled for March 2 at 9 a.m. at the Samoset Resort in Rockland. DMR’s newly appointed Commissioner Patrick Keliher will be the keynote speaker and offer his vision for the future of DMR and the lobster industry. The meeting will also include an update on the whale rules from NMFS and an overview of federal safety regulations from the Coast Guard. The MLA will give away door prizes, hold the annual v-notch survey drawing and hold its annual election. Nominations for election the MLA Board are still being accepted. The directors discussed nominations for the MLA Golden V-notch Award and the Marine Patrol Officer of the Year Award. The Board also voted to establish a new Outstanding Service Award.

The directors discussed the proposals under consideration by the Take Reduction Team (TRT) for vertical line risk reduction including the revised proposal generated by Maine during the TRT meeting. Several concerns were raised, primarily with going to large 20-trap trawls at six miles (three miles beyond the state waters line). Some vessels are able to handle large gangs of gear, but many others are simply too small. The directors had grave concerns over the safety of these vessels in terms of lack of space to haul and set back gear, issues of crew safety dealing with rope and adequate space on deck, concern over the consequences of dealing with large gangs of gear set over each other. It would lead to some lobstermen sizing up their vessels and putting more effort offshore and others losing access to significant areas of traditional fishing grounds to avoid putting the vessel and crew at risk.

The directors did not believe that the conservation gain from mandating 20-trap trawls at six miles was warranted and noted that whale sightings in Maine aggregate near the 50 fathom contour, closer to twelve miles from shore. Instead, the directors proposed requiring 20-trap trawls in seasonal right whale hot spots such as Jeffrey’s Ledge, Jordan Basin, Outer Falls and off Zone A near the Canadian border. Larger trawls would provide strong conservation values and are strongly preferred over closures.

The directors decided that the best approach to keep the Maine fleet safe and provide meaningful vertical line reductions, particularly in the offshore waters where whales frequent, is an incremental approach to trawling up. Requiring a minimum of pairs in the non-exempt state waters and triples from 3 to 6 miles is a balanced strategy. The board proposed requiring a minimum of five-trap trawls from 6 to 12 miles in Zones A – C; 10-trap trawls with two endlines in Zones D, E and G; and 12-trap trawls with two endlines in Zone F. Outside12 miles the directors recommended a minimum of 12-trap trawls in Zones A, C, E and G and a minimum of 15-trap trawls in Zones B, D and F. Larger trawls of 20 are recommended for right whale hotspots.

The directors also spent considerable time discussing how to draw a six-mile line which would be three miles beyond the state waters line. One recommendation was to draw a straight line offshore that is easy for lobstermen to work with and easy for enforcement. Concerning gear marking, directors raised concerns about the burden of marking gear three times with multiple colors as proposed by NMFS. NMFS also proposed gear marking in Maine’s exempted waters. The directors do not think that lobstermen will comply with gear marking if it is too onerous. Instead they proposed that gear inside the exemption line be marked with a single unique color midway down the buoy line and gear fished outside the exemption line be marked once in the top half of the line and once on the bottom half of the line with a single unique color. MLA will submit its feedback to DMR promptly; the revised Maine plan must be submitted to NMFS by January 30.

ASMFC Northern Shrimp Section

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s Northern Shrimp Section revised the total allowable catch (TAC) for the 2012 northern shrimp fishery at its meeting in January to 2,211 mt, an increase of 211 mt from the originally established TAC.  The Section modified the TAC to address harvester and processor concerns regarding their ability to maintain markets that have been established over the past few seasons. The Section maintained all other fishery specifications for the 2012 season, including the Monday/ Wednesday/Friday landing days and closure of the fishery when landing an addendum to the management plan in order to consider possible changes to biological reference points and rebuilding schedule, as well as to explore issues related to management by area, harvest set asides, limited entry, and catch controls (quotas).