Proposed whale rules released

First published in Landings, June, 2014.

NMFS chart showing Maine exempt waters and 6-mile line.

NMFS chart showing Maine exempt waters and 6-mile line.

In mid-May the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on proposed regulations affecting vertical lines used by lobstermen and other fishermen in the Gulf of Maine, and along the Atlantic seaboard. The purpose of the regulations is to reduce the risk of entanglement to North Atlantic right whales, a species protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The regulations, when adopted, will amend the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan created in 1997, which applies to all east coast states through which the whales migrate.

The Final EIS evaluates the biological, economic and social ramifications of six scenarios. It follows up on the draft EIS released last year. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) held 16 public meetings in August and September, 2013, to hear public feedback on the  scenarios; NMFS also received 533 letters on the proposed regulations. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Downeast Lobstermen’s Association were the only commercial lobstering groups in Maine to submit written comments.

The preferred regulations are based on a computer model based on high “co-occurrence areas,” which are areas that have the highest frequency of gear overlapping with large whale sightings. The regulations preferred by NMFS for reduction of vertical lines in Maine are as follows:

Table VL measures• No new regulations in Maine exempt state waters.

• Minimum trawl length requirements for Maine are based on distance from shore (non-exempt state waters, 3 to 6 miles, 6 to 12 miles, and 12+ miles) and by lobster zone.

• Additional seasonal trawling up required in Zones F and G during the winter. However, there are no seasonal closures for Jeffrey’s Ledge or Jordan’s Basin.

• A ¼ mile buffer was created around three islands, located outside the exemption line to allow singles (Monhegan, Matinicus and Criehaven).

• Maine Pocket Waters are defined as state waters.

• Expanded vertical line gear marking in all non-exempt state and federal waters, requiring three 12” red marks on each buoy line (top, middle, bottom). However, no gear marking will be required in Maine exempted waters.

The FEIS is available at: http://www.nero.noaa.gov/protected/whaletrp/eis2013/.  Comments on the FEIS are due June 16, 2014. The Final Rule is expected by be released in June. Typically, Final Rules go into effect 30 days after publication. However, MLA and Maine DMR requested a June 1 implementation date.