Steaming Ahead: How Do We Plan for the Future?

The million-dollar questions on lobstermen’s minds seem to be, “What do I need to do to prepare for the 2019 fishing season? Will there be new whale regulations to contend with, and what is the bait supply going to look like?” Unfortunately, no one can answer those questions. And we have even less information right now than we should due to the government shutdown.
The timing and severity of new whale and herring regulations are unknown. But we do have some parameters on what herring landings will look like next year. The herring quota will be cut by 51% if the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed rule goes through or by 70% if the New England Fishery Management Council proposal goes through. Under the NMFS scenario, we lose over 56 million pounds of herring, with a 45.5-million-pound reduction from Area 1A. Under the Council scenario, we lose nearly 77 million pounds of herring, with a 51.5-million-pound reduction in Area 1A.
To put it differently, if a truck carries 40,000 pounds of bait, we lose 1,400 trucks under the NMFS scenario and 1,920 under the Council scenario. That’s a lot of herring! For comparison, Maine landed approximately 12 million pounds of herring in 2018, the equivalent of 300 trucks. While both scenarios are grim, the NMFS alternative gives the lobster industry a little more breathing room to adjust to these drastic cuts. The MLA has expressed strong support to fishery managers for the NMFS alternative.
Regardless of which scenario plays out, lobstermen should be planning ahead. You should be talking to your bait dealer about how to fill the gap next year. Are there plans to diversify bait offerings? Is there storage available in your area to hold frozen bait or other baits that may be available before peak demand kicks in? Is your buying station or co-op talking about what your local bait supply will look like next year, and how to get the most out of what you have? If these conversations are not yet happening, then please initiate them!
What can you do personally? Based on conversations with your bait dealer, how stable does your bait supply look month-by-month next year? Do you think you will have bait when you need it? Are there alternative sources of bait to get you through the lean times? Have you considered using bait savers or other bait-saving techniques to get the most out of the bait you do get? The success of your business will depend on how closely you work with your bait dealer and on planning for your specific needs.
There have been some positive developments on the bait front. The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is investigating the possibility of allowing carp from Illinois to be a source of bait for the lobster fishery. At the December Lobster Advisory Council meeting, DMR reported that Illinois has a very large biomass of carp not known to carry VHS, a deadly infectious fish disease which can affect many species of marine and fresh water fish. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may be able to invest in a testing program and provide chain of custody for these fish because they want to prevent them from invading the Great Lakes. If the carp are disease-free and become legal to sell as lobster bait in Maine, the bait distribution system can address the market logistics of getting these fish to lobstermen. Bringing in a high volume of carp would go a long way toward stabilizing the price and supply of bait this year.
When it comes to whales, things are a bit less certain. The Take Reduction Team (TRT) is scheduled to meet in late April or early May to discuss changes to the whale plan. The TRT and the whale plan fall under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the goal of which is to reduce right whale serious injury and mortality. Maine has proposed expanded gear marking, reducing rope in the surface system, and gear modifications of vertical lines so that they are likely to break if encountered by a whale. The DMR has been moving forward aggressively with its whale research project to collect baseline data on the type and rigging of vertical lines in the fishery, the operational breaking strength of those lines, and establishing the necessary working loads for various segments of the lobster fishery. While new closures are under serious consideration for an area in Massachusetts around Nantucket due to large aggregations of whales, potential new whale regulations for Maine are likely to involve gear marking and gear modifications. Any new rules decided at the next TRT meeting would move forward through federal rulemaking and are not likely to be implemented in 2019.
But, and this is a very big ‘but,’ NMFS is also in the process of conducting a new Biological Opinion on right whales as required under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). By all accounts, it is expected that the outcome is not going to be good for any fishery that interacts with right whales due to the whales’ declining population and health status. Where the MMPA looks at reducing serious injury and mortality for right whales, the ESA takes it a step further and seeks to eliminate the stressors that contribute to the population decline. This would include entanglements that do not result in serious injury or mortality to whales but may negatively impact the whales’ overall health. Under ESA, fisheries will need to reduce the number of overall encounters with whales. The Biological Opinion is expected to be released later in 2019.
In order to pre-empt a negative finding against the lobster industry in the Biological Opinion, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is looking at making changes to the lobster management plan to reduce interactions between the lobster fishery and right whales. They are considering reductions to vertical lines, as a stand alone measure or in combination with trap limits, with the goal of removing vertical lines from the water. ASMFC will vote on whether to initiate changes to the lobster plan during its February meeting, and public hearings on proposed options would likely take place during the summer with a final vote in the fall. If the changes move forward, this would likely result in implementation by early 2020.
What all this means is that the lobster industry must prepare for two separate sets of whale regulations. Under the TRT’s whale plan, expect to see new regulations for gear marking and gear modifications. Fishery closures would also fall under this category for areas that are seeing consistent aggregations of right whales, though there are none slated for Maine right now. Under the ASMFC lobster management plan, expect to see proposals for vertical line reductions, either as a stand-alone or in combination with trap reductions.
The wild card in all of this is the lawsuit that the environmental groups have brought against NMFS. The organizations are not satisfied with the current whale rules and are pushing for a new Biological Opinion to force more restrictions to protect whales through the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. While the two-pronged management approach underway through the TRT and ASMFC will do this eventually, there is always the possibility that a court will seek to force NMFS to take more immediate actions. The MLA has intervened in this lawsuit and will have input if the court decides to accelerate the timeline for new whale protection measures.
So when will we see new whale rules? If the management processes take place on schedule, do not expect to see new whale rules before 2020. The lobster fishery has a voice in shaping new measures through the ASMFC and TRT processes, which is why the MLA is fully participating on both fronts. If the court and environmental groups get impatient, things could happen sooner. If the court pressures NMFS to take emergency action, it is likely that these measures will have far less input from the fishing industry. It is in the lobster industry’s best interest to work through the TRT and ASMFC to find solutions that will help right whales, while allowing Maine lobstermen to continue to make a profitable living. The MLA is committed to doing just that.
The MLA will continue to push to ensure that any new whale regulations in the U.S. are proportionate to the risk posed by each fishery and fishing practice. We reject ropeless fishing as an option for the Maine lobster fishery but will explore other options, including expanded gear marking, gear modifications and vertical line reductions. The MLA has carefully reviewed the whale entanglement data. We know that there have been no confirmed entanglements in Maine lobster gear since 2002. We know that the Canadian snow crab fishery was responsible for 11 entanglements since 2016, eight of which resulted in serious injury or mortality. We know that most of the rope removed from whales since 2016 has been ½” diameter or larger. The MLA will continue to push for more accountability from all of Canada’s fixed gear fisheries when it comes to protecting right whales.
Maine lobstermen are certainly going to have to adapt to many changes in 2019 and beyond. Your best defense is to stay informed so you can make appropriate decisions to maximize the future success of your lobstering business. Lobstermen don’t drive their boats with their eyes closed. Lobstermen don’t ignore NOAA weather forecasts. Lobstermen notice when the engine makes a weird noise or the bilge starts to back up. So it makes sense for you to pay attention now to the changes that are coming this season and for many years to come. Don’t close your eyes and pretend that it will all be OK. You need to take steps now to ensure that you have the bait you need to continue fishing, and be able to prepare for changes resulting from the whale rules.
The MLA will continue to advocate for our lobstermen and give you the information you need to be ready.
As always, stay safe on the water.