In January, I traveled to Providence, R.I., for the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) meeting. The TRT is the management group, established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which advises the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on the whale plan. This TRT focuses on the protection of Atlantic large whales and is composed of 60 stakeholders from fisheries, state agencies, conservation groups and the science community. And like the whale plan, it addresses fixed gear fisheries along the entire Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida.
Maine is lucky to have excellent representation for our lobster fishery on the TRT. In addition to myself and Terry Stockwell from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, we have three lobster industry representatives: Jim Tripp from the offshore fishery, Dwight Carver from the Downeast fishery, and Stevie Robbins who has worked in all aspects of the lobster fishery. When questions arise about the safety and feasibility of management options, these guys are able to tell it like it is. At this past meeting, Dwight did a fabulous job of explaining safety concerns and Jim was able to talk about the realities of these measures in the fishery.
But with a group of 60 stakeholders, despite bringing your “A Team” to the table it is very difficult for such a large and diverse group of people to come to agreement. As a representative of Maine’s lobster industry, my marching orders are clear. I am there to protect the interests of Maine lobstermen. The usual dynamic is that the conservation groups are looking for solutions that seem radical to the fishing industry, and the fishing industry pushes to keep the status quo. NMFS (and the science and conservation communities) constantly remind the group that whales continue to get entangled in fishing gear and need further protection; that is why we are there.
There was a lot of talk at this meeting about our failure to meet PBR, the Potential Biologic Removal rate (the number of whales that can be lost each year due to interactions with humans). PBR is the standard set under the MMPA to protect whales. Unfortunately entanglements from U.S. fisheries exceed PBR, entanglements from Canadian fisheries exceed PBR, and ship strikes exceed PBR. Combined, we aren’t even close to meeting it. NMFS has developed a plan with multiple indicators to monitor the effectiveness of the whale rules over the coming years.
Yet January’s meeting was quite different from any I’ve attended over the past 15 years. With the groundline rules in place since 2009 and the vertical line rules finalized in late 2014, this was the first TRT meeting when we haven’t been under the gun to get new management measures in place. For the first time, NMFS provided a process for stakeholders to bring forward proposals to make adjustments to the whale rules.
Maine fared extremely well under the vertical line rules, with a plan based on adding more traps to a trawl as you move offshore, along with expanded gear marking. Lobstermen fishing inside Maine’s exempted waters did not see any new regulations. Maine avoided two seasonal closures proposed for Jeffrey’s Ledge and Jordan’s Basin. However, we needed a few tweaks, so Maine submitted a proposal to expand the existing ¼ mile buffer allowing singles around three Pen Bay islands to be applied to other islands in Penobscot Bay as well as the Isles of Shoals. Maine also asked NMFS to create a process for fishermen to make changes based on safety concerns. The states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts submitted proposals to regain the ability to fish singles in coastal waters, offering expansive gear marking in exchange. New Hampshire asked for the ability to cap vertical lines if lobstermen turned in trap tags. The conservation community again proposed the seasonal closure of Jeffrey’s Ledge and Jordan’s Basin.
This is where it was clear that things have changed. There was a real willingness among all the stakeholders to find compromises that worked. There was a recognition that fishermen need to be able to fish, but also are expected to make reasonable changes in areas where whales are most at risk.
To this end, the majority of proposals were approved by the TRT. Maine was able to expand its island buffer to the additional islands. Lobstermen fishing the Isles of Shoals will add an additional mark to those singles since there is a higher occurrence of whales off this part of the Maine coast. And NMFS will establish a working group to create a process for dealing with safety concerns of individual fishermen. The states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts got their singles back in coastal waters in exchange for marking that gear.
The conservation community was not able to gain adequate traction to get the seasonal closure of Jeffrey’s Ledge or Jordan’s Basin. This was obviously a non-starter from Maine’s perspective, and our contingent strongly opposed this proposal. However, the group compromised and agreed to uniquely mark gear fished in these areas, because that gear may be more likely to be encountered by a whale.
The process was long and exhausting, yet progress was made. Everyone at the table was able to give a little. In the end, the TRT made the latest iteration of the whale plan better for fishermen. Through additional gear marking, the rules finally may shed some light on which fishing gear is actually ending up on whales. These changes are expected to be finalized in the coming months and in place for the June 2015 implementation date.
Compromise may be a dirty word to some but in this case, it benefits Maine lobstermen!
As always, stay safe on the water!
MLA Directors Meetings
The MLA Directors met on January 7. They reviewed the list of bill titles from the Legislature available to date, though the details of the bills were not available. DMR has a few bills in, one of which will seek to gain additional authority to aid in enforcement, especially in the offshore areas. Rep. Kumiega put forward a bill which could extent the fishing day in the fall and others looking at licensing and latent effort. The members of the Joint Committee on Marine Resources are almost entirely new this session; MLA staff and as many directors as possible plan to attend a “Meet and Greet” with the committee.
The directors discussed the NEFMC (the Council) Omnibus Habitat Amendment. Patrice will make comments at the public hearing in Portland and submit MLA’s written comments to the Council. Those comments will emphasize the lobster industry’s concern that lobster gear might be excluded from closed areas in the future; oppose any opening of existing closures, especially Closed Area II, which contains more than one-third of the Gulf of Maine’s egg-bearing lobsters at certain times of year; oppose the eastern Maine closures; and oppose any measures that would undermine the diversity of Maine’s small boat fishing fleet.
The directors discussed the success of the 2014 lobster season in stark contrast to the 2012 season. They talked about how the industry might become proactive in replicating the 2014 season in future years by not oversupplying the market during the summer shed and landing quality, shippable lobster. The directors identified several important factors which should guide discussion, namely that lobstermen don’t want to be told that they can’t fish and the industry needs something predictable that they can count on each year.
Patrice will be attending the Take Reduction Team (TRT) meeting in January to support Maine’s proposal to extend the ¼ mile buffer in the whale rules to additional islands in Penobscot Bay and the Isles of Shoals. The MLA will not oppose Massachusetts’ efforts to fish singles in state waters, but will strongly oppose the proposal from the conservation community to implement a seasonal closure of Jeffrey’s Ledge and Jordan’s Basin to protect whales.
Maine’s Commercial Fishing Safety Council’s January meeting was postponed due to a lack of quorum. MLA will attend the next meeting to discuss MLA’s interest in changing Coast Guard regulations that require repacking a life raft every year, rather than every two years as was the rule before. Revere has several life rafts that the manufacturer states need only to be repacked every three years, which seems to conflict with Coast Guard rules.
The directors discussed details of the MLA Annual Meeting on March 6 at 9 a.m. at the Samoset Resort, as well as other details of the Maine Fishermen’s Forum. The next directors meeting will be held on February 4 at Noon at Darby’s. University of Maine researchers will present their studies on cod and cusk barotrauma.
The MLA Directors also met on December 3. Terry Stockwell from DMR reviewed the Council’s Habitat Amendment. MLA expressed concern over the potential for lobster traps to be excluded from closed areas and noted that the Habitat Amendment was expansive, making it difficult to determine how the various options might affect Maine. Terry also urged MLA to monitor the Council’s coral management plan which could impact the lobster industry. The ASMFC Jonah crab plan will go to public hearing in March and be voted on in April. It is specific to Jonah crab, not rock crab, and will manage based on minimum size and/or sex. Regarding this winter’s shrimp survey, Arnie Gamage recommended that DMR conduct part of the survey with traps to get information on spawning status along the coast, and also allow the trapped shrimp to be sold.
Amy Lent, Chris Hall and Nathan Lipfert from the Maine Maritime Museum updated the directors on the progress of the lobster exhibit, due to open in the summer of 2015. The Museum wants to incorporate lobstermen’s personal stories into the new exhibit. They are asking lobstermen to contribute a freshly-painted lobster buoy and tell on video or in writing the story of their lobster boat, how it was named, where they fish and how long they’ve been fishing, and any other information they are comfortable sharing. The Museum would also like to acquire a lobster boat typical of those used by the industry today. It would be tax deductible based on the appraised value. Directors urged MMM to contact banks on foreclosed boats. The Museum is also looking for an historic gauge, 10.5” in total length, from the 1800s.
Preliminary Menhaden Assessment Results are Positive
The ASMFC released the 2014 Atlantic menhaden stock assessment and will discuss the document at its winter meeting in February. While the assessment and its results are not final, the initial results are positive. A new model was developed, dividing the fishery into northern and southern components, as well as bait and reduction components. According to the draft benchmark stock assessment and based on the current reference points, the stock is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.
Good News on Whale Rules from TRT
The TRT, which advises NMFS on the large whale plan, met in January in Providence, R.I. Maine’s contingent included Patrice McCarron and Dwight Carver from the MLA, Jim Tripp from Spruce Head and Terry Stockwell from DMR. DMR staff Sarah Cotnoir and Erin Summers also attended. The MLA was the only Maine lobster industry organization that attended the meeting.
Maine submitted a proposal to amend the whale plan to expand the ¼ mile buffer, which allow setting singles, to all the Penobscot Bay islands (including Metinic, Wooden Ball, Seal, and Greens) in addition to those island already included (Monhegan, Criehaven, Matinicus). Additionally, Maine requested that this buffer include the Maine portion of the Isles of Shoals. Those fishing singles in the Isles of Shoals buffer will have to add an additional unique mark because of their proximity to whales on Jeffrey’s Ledge.
The conservation groups attending the meeting made a strong push to adopt seasonal fishing closures on Jeffrey’s Ledge and Jordan Basin as part of the whale plan. In the end, a compromise was reached which will require anyone lobstering in those proposed closure areas to specially mark their endlines, thus indicating that the trap was fished there.
The TRT is forming a subcommittee to look at how to have a conservation equivalency for boats with unique safety concerns when complying with the whale plan, such as those who do not feel they can fish the minimum trawl requirements.
The Department of Marine Resources is conducting rulemaking on four lobster issues. The DMR has not yet published rulemaking necessary for compliance with the federal whale rules.
Lobster Trap Tag Attachment (Chapter 25.08)
Maine DMR is proposing to remove the requirement that a trap tag be attached to the trap only by the means for which the tag was designed. With this change, lobstermen could securely attach the tag by other means (for example, hog rings) which would enable them to change gear over and reuse tags already in their possession. Under the current system, they must cut the tag out and bring it to a DMR office to get replacement tags. This change in rule is pending approval of a conservation equivalency from the ASMFC. If the conservation equivalency is not approved by ASMFC, DMR will not advance the proposed rule for adoption, and will notify the industry. Comments are due February 20.
Kittery Lobster Trawl Limits (Chapter 25.04)
The trawl limit proposed in the vicinity of Kittery is unchanged from the existing trawl limit in law. For consistency with all regions, DMR is seeking to adopt this trawl limit in regulation rather than in statute so that it is easier to make changes requested by industry as necessary. Comments due by Feb. 23.
Hancock County Lobster Trawl Limits (Chapter 25.04)
The trawl limit in Hancock County is proposed to be amended so that it does not conflict with changes to minimum trawl lengths that will be necessary for compliance with the NMFS’ whale rules, which go into effect in Maine on June 1, 2015. With the new whale rules, there will be a minimum number of lobster traps per trawl based on the different lobster zones and distance from shore in order to reduce the number of buoy lines in the water. This proposed rulemaking would amend the area in Hancock County where is it unlawful to have more than three traps on a trawl. Comments due by Feb. 23.
Frenchboro Island Limited Entry Program (Chapter 25.97)
This proposed rulemaking would also address a recent island limited entry referendum vote on Frenchboro. It would create the Frenchboro Island Limited Entry program, allowing up to 14 commercial island resident lobster licenses to be issued annually. Comments due by Feb. 23.
Lobster Trap Reductions (But not in Maine!)
American Lobster Permit Holders (Areas 2, 3, 4, and 5)
NMFS has approved a final rule that implements conservation measures for the Southern New England stock of American lobster, as recommended by the ASMFC. NMFS will implement the following conservation measures beginning on May 1, 2015:
Area 2: Mandatory v-notching of egg-bearing female lobsters;
Area 3: Minimum carapace size increase to 3 17/32 inches;
Area 4: Mandatory v-notching of egg-bearing female lobsters, and an annual seasonal closure from February 1 through March 31 (beginning in 2016); and
Area 5: Mandatory v-notching of egg-bearing female lobsters, and an annual seasonal closure from February 1 through March 31 (beginning in 2016).
In addition, NMFS will implement a series of annual trap reductions for Areas 2 and 3, beginning with fishing year 2016. The first reduction will take effect on April 30, 2016, just prior to the start of fishing year, and every year after following the schedule below.
In the next several weeks, NMFS will inform each permit holder of their reduced 2016 allocation based on the first round of trap reductions and will provide instructions on how and when to transfer traps later in 2015. The reduced allocation will be the amount available for transfer. Revised allocations based on the first year of trap reductions and subsequent transfers made during 2015 will take effect on May 1, 2016.