Guest column: DMR whale plan reflects practicality, federal reality

As I write this, DMR staff are making final changes to our proposed whale rules that I’ll submit to NOAA Fisheries in early December. These changes are based on comments made by members of the industry at the last three meetings; the changes focus on weak points in end-lines as they pertain to fishermen’s safety.
Addressing the potential risk posed to the North Atlantic right whale by Maine’s lobster fishery is a difficult issue for all involved. I’d like to thank Maine lobstermen for your patience and critically important input throughout this process. It’s been a long road to get to this point, so I’d also like to take this opportunity to share my thoughts on how we got here.

I have thought long and hard about this, and I couldn’t in good conscience turn the fate of this industry over to people who have no practical understanding of how the fishery operates.

I don’t think anyone would deny that Maine’s current proposal is a vast improvement over the measures originally brought out for discussion in June. But despite our best efforts, portions of the plan lack widespread industry support. In recent weeks, industry associations have taken positions rejecting the plan, and to be honest, it was difficult not to be discouraged by this news. Our plan is based on a thorough review of the overlap of lobster gear and whales and addresses risk in a much more targeted way that also prioritizes and protects the interests of industry. I appreciate the engagement of all industry groups and especially the effort the MLA has put into its review of the entanglement data and legal strategies. I’m pleased everyone has remained willing to discuss how we move forward.
I am proud of the work that my staff has done to support the development of a proposal that does not require trap reductions or extreme trawling up scenarios. As I have continuously stated, it is critical that we develop a proposal that is best for Maine, but in all the meetings on this topic there have been voices suggesting that Maine should not advance any new measures and that instead we should simply “fight.” I understand why that appears to be an appealing strategy. I have no doubt that if I had done only that, it would have been a popular decision. The problem is that, given the federal laws at play, it also would have been wildly irresponsible.
If you have been to any of the meetings we held while developing the plan, you have heard me speak about the reality of the Endangered Species Act — what would happen if we tried to just fight and what would happen if we lost. I have thought long and hard about this, and I couldn’t in good conscience turn the fate of this industry over to people who have no practical understanding of how the fishery operates. Whether that is NOAA Fisheries or a judge in a D.C. courtroom, I believe that we can do a better job of finding solutions that reduce risk to whales while preserving the fundamental characteristics of Maine’s fishery. If we didn’t present a legitimate proposal for NOAA’s consideration, I sincerely believe you would be looking at large-scale time and area closures of the Maine coast, dramatically impacting thousands of Maine fishermen and undermining the bedrock of our coastal economy. If you don’t believe me, ask Massachusetts how they made out after remaining silent.
Maine’s proposal seeks to keep you fishing in a way that is consistent with the historical practices of this fishery. It keeps any additional trawling up requirements out of the Exemption Area and, other than gear marking, it maintains the status quo for the majority of Maine’s fleet. I know that fishermen remain concerned that the combination of longer trawls and weak points will mean lost gear and, even worse, risk the safety of the captain and their crew. I heard these concerns loudly and clearly stated. Because I take these issues seriously, I have asked a small group of fishermen with years of experience fishing a variety of conditions and gear configurations to help address the safety concerns that were identified prior to submitting our final proposal.
While you may not agree with my strategy, I hope you will believe that every decision I have made in this process has been made with the best interests of this fishery in mind. Together we have worked hard to get to this point and there is still a lot of work ahead. I have committed to seeking flexibility in the Federal Plan to give lobster zones the option to make modifications to the State proposal that provide an equivalent amount of conservation. We will initiate these conversations at the next round of Zone Council meetings to determine which zones might have an interest in pursuing those changes. Some zones may also want to discuss implementing trawl maximums to complement the proposed minimums. Since that is a Zone Council authority, I trust the zones to explore that option where appropriate.
As I said at the beginning, we have come a long way from where we started in June. That progress is thanks to all the lobstermen who have engaged in this process and provided meaningful input all along the way. You have changed the way I think about this issue and our proposal has improved as a result. I am still listening and will continue to explore whether any additional refinements are possible or advisable. I recognize that this proposal will impact some more than others, but I am confident that this is the best that Maine can put forward to protect the safety of whales and the interests of Maine fishermen.

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