Lobstermen worry about impact of state’s whale plan

Lobstermen turned out by the hundreds last month to learn about the state’s plan to reduce entanglement risk from the Maine lobster fishery to right whales. In early November, the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) held meetings in Ellsworth, Waldoboro and South Portland to update lobstermen on the evolution of the state’s right whale risk reduction proposal, from the drastic trawling up and trap reduction scenarios presented to the industry in June, to the current plan. Commissioner Patrick Keliher told lobstermen that he took their concerns to heart and revised the state’s plan to avoid trap reductions, closures, and trawling up in the state’s exempted waters and significantly scaled back trawling up measures in Maine’s non-exempt waters.

Many Maine lobstermen worry that proposed regulations to protect right whales will affect their safety at sea. Photo courtesy of the Bangor Daily News.

The majority of lobstermen attended these meetings to raise a litany of concerns over the safety and operational issues they believe will be created as a result of DMR’s plan. While there were distinct regional issues, there were many concerns shared by lobstermen across the state. Most Downeast fishermen expressed concern about weaker ropes snapping in the hauler or not holding up to the strain of currents and tides, and many were also philosophically opposed to vessel tracking. Midcoast lobstermen were most worried about their ability to safely add more traps to a trawl, particularly in the sliver area which runs from the exemption line out to the 3-mile line. Due to the location of the offshore islands, this encompasses a vast expanse of bottom characterized by hard, irregular bottom that is intensively and competitively fished. Southern Maine lobstermen raised particular concern about the safety of smaller vessels fishing out to the 6-mile area if larger vessels shift the mandated 24-trap trawls closer to shore instead of breaking them up. They worry that these smaller vessels will be challenged to fish around large gangs of gear and will face significant safety risks if they are set over by longer trawls.

Keeping Lobstermen Safe
Safety was the most prevalent concern voiced at each of the meetings. Lobstermen are extremely worried about the safety ramifications posed to the captain and crew if required to fish longer trawls. This concern is exacerbated by the simultaneous requirement to weaken endlines. Many expressed that most lobstering operations are pushing the edge of how they can safely fish and already encounter safety issues in their daily fishing routines. Mandating minimum traps on a trawl, and doing so while weakening endlines, will drive many operations past the comfort zone where they can fish safely, especially on rough days with big seas. By removing a lobsterman’s freedom to judge on the amount of gear that can be safely hauled from each vessel, these mandated changes would increase the amount of risk in situations such as controlling gear and rope on deck or clearing rope through the hauler without losing fingers. “How do you prove our safety concerns are real?” asked Cole Baines of South Thomaston. “Wait until someone goes overboard?”

Operational Concerns
There were many operational concerns raised as well. Of particular worry was the loss of efficiency associated with fishing longer trawls. Lobstermen currently configure their gear to maximize catch based on the type of bottom where they fish. Requiring minimum trawl numbers, especially on crowded, hard bottom, would significantly impact the fishing efficiency of each trap, reducing catch from each trap and pushing lobstermen to work harder and hire more crew to try to make ends meet. Offshore lobstermen are concerned that longer trawls will reduce the amount of bottom that they can cover, which could result in lower landings.
Many lobstermen are also concerned that the combination of longer trawls with weaker endlines will increase gear loss, increasing costs for lobstermen and creating more ghost gear on the bottom. This, in turn, will require DMR to streamline its process for issuing replacement tags.

More crowding
Lobstermen are also concerned that they will lose access to the bottom that they currently fish. Lobstermen who fear that they cannot safely fish 24-trap trawls outside of 12 miles face two unfavorable choices: give up this offshore bottom or face upgrading their vessel and equipment. Boats that aren’t able to trawl up may have to abandon offshore bottom and turn their efforts closer to shore, creating more congestion in these already heavily fished areas. This may also create new conflicts as these boats mix longer trawls into areas traditionally fished with shorter gangs of gear. The alternative would be a costly investment in a larger boat and gear that is properly equipped to handle large trawls.

Jack Merrill, Islesford, pointed out that the state’s plan would push more lobstermen toward the shore. MLA photo.

Cranberry Isles lobsterman Jack Merrill noted, “I know where I fish between 3 and 12 miles, I would say there’s 20 to 30 guys that fish there now. If this goes into effect, at least half of those guys are going to move inside because they are not geared up, their boats aren’t big enough. So you’ve changed the dynamics of the fishery completely, and put a lot of people in a really bad spot.”
Several midcoast lobstermen also fear that the DMR proposal will result in many lobstermen upsizing their vessels, adding crew, and working harder to make ends meet. This would in turn increase effort in the fishery and put more pressure on the lobster resource at a time when some researchers predict that landings may soon decline.
The reality of the trawling up requirements will be that most lobstermen will have to rethink how they approach the fishery. Trawling up will create an incentive for lobstermen to get bigger boats so they don’t lose access to fishing grounds. This could grow the divides between smaller inshore vessels, medium nearer-shore vessels and larger boats that can fish longer trawls safely offshore.
Despite the strong concerns raised by lobstermen throughout the state, there were several brave individuals at each meeting who spoke up to thank DMR for listening to lobstermen’s feedback from the June meetings and voiced support for DMR’s plan.

Reporting and VMS
Many lobstermen, particularly in the Downeast area, strongly questioned the need to require vessel monitoring systems (VMS) on lobster vessels fishing in federal waters. Lobsterman and state representative Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor spoke for many, stating, “VMS is intended for fisheries like scallops and herring that have to stick to areas. Lobstermen can go where we want. They want us to track ourselves but that won’t benefit whales.” Other lobstermen were concerned over the potential costs associated with VMS and the appropriateness of the technology for the lobster fishery. Commissioner Keliher stated clearly that DMR’s goal is to find money to defray the costs of adopting this technology and not pass the costs down to lobstermen.

Gear marking
Lobstermen from all areas of the state voiced strong support for DMR’s proposal to change over to purple gear marking in order to distinguish Maine lobster gear from that fished in other states. There was statewide support to phase in the new gear marking requirement during 2020 to allow inshore lobstermen to mark gear in the shop this winter, while allowing adequate time for offshore lobstermen to rework gear as it is hauled out over the course of the fishing season. “I support gear marking,” said Stonington lobsterman Julie Eaton. “Unfortunately, we’re guilty until we’re proven innocent by NOAA on this issue. So let’s clear our name and move on.”

Many lobstermen, however, questioned the need for a 36” mark at the top of the vertical line, in addition to the three required marks. DMR responded that this mark will be mandated in the federal whale rules so it must be included in DMR’s gear marking plan. Lobstermen offered several ideas to ease the burden of marking this section of line including incorporating a section of purple rope from the main buoy to the pick-up buoy; splicing in a 36” section of purple line near the top of the line as a gangion and letting it hang loose until they can work through gear to tie it in. Others urged DMR to explore the option of using manufactured purple line for their endline.

Courts remain a wild card
Commissioner Keliher stressed that DMR has presented this plan in a way that allows Maine lobstermen to continue to fish. Yet despite this effort, the courts remain a wild card in the process. The Commissioner explained several recent court developments. First, Max Strahan filed a case against DMR and NMFS in a Bangor federal court, but the judge has yet to rule whether this case will move forward. In the case brought against NMFS by several environmental groups, the judge denied NMFS’s request to delay the case until the Biological Opinion is released in early 2020. In his ruling the judge noted that any delay is precious time for right whales due to unprecedented fatalities in recent years, particularly from entanglement. In a separate court case, this same judge ruled to close two areas off Massachusetts to gillnetting, noting that humans have brought the North Atlantic right whale to the brink of extinction.
When urged by some lobstermen to tell the feds “No” and sue if they try to implement new rules, Commissioner Keliher stated, “I’m not going to roll the dice on the lobster industry. We came up with a plan that shows we are managing the fishery and protecting whales. It’s not perfect. But I have no doubt it’s far better than what we’ll get from a federal judge.”

More research needed
Over the course of the meetings, many lobstermen expressed frustration over the lack of research being conducted on right whales in the Gulf of Maine. Many questioned how NMFS could require more regulations while yet no longer flying any planes along the Maine coast looking for whales. DMR said that NMFS is dedicating more resources to survey the Gulf of Maine this year, and DMR will be establishing some acoustic monitoring stations inshore to listen for whales.

Lobstermen continue to ask why right whales aren’t being tagged so that managers would know where they are. DMR’s Erin Summers explained that scientists have made some progress developing a tag for southern right whales which may hold promise for future tagging of North Atlantic right whales. DMR also continues to conduct load cell testing to address the safety concerns of weak rope and is working with the industry to develop a variety of options to achieve the weak points requirement. “This will be similar to what you currently do for the 600-pound weak link. DMR will work with fishermen to get a variety of options for weak rope approved by NMFS. Lobstermen will be able to choose whichever method works best for their gear,” noted Keliher.

Next Steps
It was clear throughout the meetings that Commissioner Keliher took lobstermen’s concerns very seriously. He stated that the DMR plan will build in flexibility to allow individual lobster zones to consider alternative approaches to achieve the same risk reduction. “If a zone has a safer way to do it, this conservation equivalency will allow that to happen,” Keliher said. For example, if a zone prefers to fish fewer traps on a trawl but reduce the number of traps, they could put a proposal forward. If an analysis reveals an equivalent risk reduction for right whales, the zone could adopt this alternate approach. The Commissioner stated that the zones will also have the ability to implement trawl maximums closer to shore to require longer trawls be broken up if they are shifted inshore.
John Williams of Stonington said he understands that many of these changes will be hard for lobstermen but urged guys to step up and try to make it work. “This is a lot better than what we were looking at. If you say no, there’s a good chance the feds could step in and do something a lot worse,” he cautioned.

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