The Year in Review: 2019 packed with change and conflicts

2019 was a year of great change for the state of Maine, the lobster industry and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA). The lobster industry greeted 2019 with much anguish over prospects for an acute bait shortage, a looming crisis stemming from the declining right whale population and a long federal government shutdown. As it turned out, bait dominated the MLA’s agenda for the first part of the year but was rapidly overtaken by the right whale issue. The year also brought new pressures from aquaculture development, the re-emergence of offshore wind proposals, an abundance of tariffs, and a decline in lobster landings.

Last year was a rocky one for Maine lobstermen and for the fishery as a whole. MLMC photo.

Amidst so much change, Maine’s lobster industry was fortunate to be blessed with stable leadership. Fueled by unprecedented support from all sectors of the fishing industry, Governor Mills re-appointed Patrick Keliher as Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) who took his oath in January. The MLA was piloted by the steady hand of Kristan Porter of Cutler, who took the helm of the organization from David Cousens in March, 2018.

The year was full of unprecedented challenges for lobstermen and industry leaders worked hard to bring a new crop of elected officials up to speed on the fishery’s priorities. Governor Janet Mills arrived in office with an aggressive agenda to address climate change, health care and the opioid crisis. The newly- elected Legislature brought a Democratic majority to both bodies and several lobstermen joined the Marine Resources Committee. Mainers also elected a new Congressman, Jared Golden, to represent Maine’s second district.

The Maine Marine Patrol Bureau and the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative both appointed new leaders last year. Jay Carroll was named as Colonel of Maine’s Marine Patrol replacing Jon Cornish, and Marianne Lacroix was named executive director of the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative, replacing Matt Jacobson. The DMR also welcomed a new director of External Affairs, Megan Ware, who previously worked at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

A mixed bag for lobstermen
2019 will be remembered for its cold spring which set the lobster fishery up for a very slow start to the season. Lobstermen experienced lower than average landings straight through the fall. Fortunately, lobster prices were stronger than average, lessening the financial sting for many lobstermen. As lobstermen pushed to make the most of their fishing days during the summer and fall, researchers published studies predicting that as environmental conditions shift from near perfect for lobsters back to more normal conditions, lobster landings will gradually decline over time. This was not news for lobstermen since no one expects lobster landings will increase forever. 

Lobster Bait
The early months of 2019 were consumed by discussions of how the lobster industry would cope with the looming bait crisis. At the start of the year, NMFS was considering two alternatives to reduce the herring quota, resulting in either a 51% or a 70% reduction compared to 2018. The MLA urged NMFS to set the quota higher and phase in reductions in future years. Ultimately NMFS selected the most precautionary option, reducing the 2019 herring quota to a meager 15,065 mt.

The New England Fishery Management Council then redefined overfishing to be more consistent with the 2018 benchmark herring stock assessment, and further reduced the herring quota for 2020 and 2021 to 11,571 mt, a staggering 77% reduction from 2018. The 2021 specifications likely will be revisited following a new stock assessment scheduled to take place in 2020.

To prepare for the drastic cuts in herring quota, DMR organized several meetings with herring and menhaden fishermen to ensure fair access to the resource for all segments of the fleet. Maine adopted rules requiring state water vessels to report daily via email and adopted reduced landing limits for Maine’s mobile and fixed gear fishermen.  

On the menhaden front, Maine’s goal was to provide fishing opportunities for all sectors of the fleet to maximize access to the state and episodic quotas and to seek quota transfer from other states if menhaden were abundant in Maine waters. The MLA advocated to maintain opportunities for small boats in the menhaden fishery by setting lower daily landing limits.

DMR’s rules for the state’s 2019 quota-based menhaden fishery included strict reporting requirements and daily and weekly vessel landing limits. The small-scale fishery was required to report monthly and store fish in barrels or totes, but maintained its 6,000 pound daily landing limit and ban on sale or transfer of fish to other vessels. Fixed gear harvesting was subject to the same daily and weekly landing limits as the mobile gear fishery and the state re-instated a personal use regulation for hook and line harvest. Maine fished through its state quota quickly, but the Commissioner was successful in transferring quota from several other states and gaining access to the full episodic quota greatly increasing Maine’s menhaden landings.

In an effort to further diversify Maine’s lobster bait supply, DMR spent considerable time exploring options to allow new sources of carp to be fished as bait in the lobster fishery, however, these ultimately were not approved. The DMR did approve two significant new baits sources, Gulf of Mexico menhaden and whole blackbelly rosefish from Uruguay. The slower pace of fishing, diversification of bait supply and additional menhaden quota obtained for Maine averted major bait shortages for Maine lobstermen during the 2019 season.

Right Whales and the Lobster Fishery
The right whale issue took center stage for the MLA during 2019. No issue has come close to the complexity and importance of the proposed right whale regulations during the MLA’s existence. While the year kicked off with some good news – seven calves were born in 2019 – the year closed with bad news. Ten right whales were confirmed to have died either in Canada or due to interaction with Canadian fishing gear.

The whale issue unfolded at a feverish pace beginning in April and the potential impacts of the federal management process on Maine lobstermen were quickly felt by all. In its quest to identify management options for the lobster fishery that would avert a “jeopardy” finding under the Endangered Species Act, NMFS buried the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) with new information in the weeks leading up to its April meeting. The agency abruptly announced its goal of reducing entanglement risk to right whales by 60% and unveiled a critical computer model which it called its decision support tool.

The MLA sent a letter to NOAA in preparation for the TRT meeting stating its strong concerns about the risk reduction goal, the decision support tool, and the undue pressure to decide a management strategy during the TRT meeting. NMFS ignored MLA’s concerns and instead issued a threat: either reach agreement on how to meet the unrealistic risk reduction goal, or lose the only opportunity to weigh in on management options that would avert a jeopardy finding. Against this backdrop, Maine’s TRT representatives worked to ensure that ropeless fishing and trap reductions (which the environmental caucus favored) would not be mandated as part of the agreement NMFS demanded.

When the dust settled, it became clear that the risk reduction goal and corresponding rules contemplated by NMFS were over-reaching and could have devastating impacts on Maine’s lobster fishery and communities. The MLA did a deep dive into NMFS’ data to better understand which fisheries and gear were involved in right whale entanglements. The MLA’s research revealed dramatic findings:

  • Known entanglements from Canada are six times high than in the U.S. (2013-2017)
  • Confirmed U.S. fishing gear does not exceed PBR (0.2 from 2013 to 2017)
  • The only known U.S. entanglement in 2014 did not occur in Maine gear (2013-2017)
  • Confirmed U.S. vessel strikes exceed PBR (2.52 from 2013-2017)
  • Entanglement in U.S. lobster gear declined by 90% from 2010 to 2018 (from 10 cases to 1 case)
  • Entanglement in gillnet/netting gear nearly doubled from 2010 to 2018 (from 4 cases to 7 cases)
  • There are 3 confirmed serious injury/mortalities in gillnet/netting gear since 2010
  • There is 1 confirmed serious injury/mortality in U.S. trap/pot case since 2010
  • Since 2010, ropes of diameter ½” or greater represent 79% of the rope removed from right whales.

Based on these findings, the MLA sent a letter to NOAA Chief Chris Oliver in August withdrawing support for the TRT consensus agreement and raising strong concerns that NMFS had not based its management action on the best available data. While it was clear that Maine lobstermen ultimately would have to reduce vertical lines and consider options on weakened rope, the bigger challenge became how to scale those measures appropriately to address the actual risk posed by the fishery – not the arbitrary 60% reduction goal stipulated by the Agency. This remains a challenge.
This new information does not mean that Maine is off the hook in identifying management measures to help right whales recover. The species is in decline and Maine must take responsibility for its role. However, the MLA has continually stressed that regulating U.S. fishermen will not prevent right whales from dying in Canada and applying U.S. regulations only to lobstermen will not solve entanglement problems in this country.

The MLA has been active on several other fronts on the whale issue. The MLA attended the annual meetings of the Ropeless Fishing Consortium and North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, giving a presentation on the MLA’s position on right whales at the latter. The MLA attended the three day peer review gathering on NMFS’s decision support tool, raising many concerns over the model’s ability to accurately assess management proposals to protect right whales. The MLA submitted written comments highlighting MLA members’ concerns through all formal rulemaking actions, including scoping and the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s (MMPA) List of Fisheries, and submitted several additional letters to NOAA and the media. The MLA has also worked closely with Maine’s Congressional delegation, NMFS and DMR, to keep each informed of MLA members’ concerns as the right whale rules progress. The MLA is conducting a survey of its members and will submit its own whale plan to NMFS early in 2020.

In June, the DMR held industry meetings and presented an array of risk reduction options to lobstermen with extremely aggressive scenarios to remove 50% of vertical lines. Based on feedback from lobstermen, DMR announced in November a scaled-back plan with new trawl minimums based on distance from shore, weak points in endlines and gear marking. The revised plan does not propose measures for gear fished in Maine’s exempt waters. The revised DMR plan was greeted with some support, but also raised a host of safety, operational and economic concerns from lobstermen.

The MLA voted not to support DMR’s plan. In a written statement, the association noted its decision was based on concern that DMR’s plan “seeks reductions that exceed the documented risk posed by the Maine lobster fishery as demonstrated in MLA’s analysis of NMFS data (see August 31 Letter). The MLA conducted a thorough analysis of fishing gear removed from entangled right whales which revealed that lobster is the least prevalent gear. The MLA is also concerned the state’s plan creates unresolved safety and operational challenges for some sectors of the lobster industry.” The whale issue will remain a significant challenge for MLA and its members in 2020 and beyond. To ensure that MLA members’ concerns are both heard and addressed, the MLA will continue to arm itself with data, work with its talented legal team, and work closely with the MLA Board and members to effectively articulate the safety, operational and economic challenges that the various whale regulations will pose for lobstermen. The MLA will continue to argue our case through the regulatory process, the courts, with federal agency staff, DMR and our elected officials. We will continue to educate the media and the public about all that Maine lobstermen have done to protect right whales in the past and are doing today to keep the Gulf of Maine safe for the species.

MLA Expands Legal Defense Team
In October, the MLA officially welcomed Jane Luxton to its Legal Defense Team. Luxton, a partner in the Washington, DC office of Lewis Brisbois, joins MLA’s long-standing attorney Mary Anne Mason, who has led MLA’s legal effort since 2007. Luxton has served in several prominent positions in the U.S. government, including general counsel for NOAA from 2007-2009. The MLA’s stellar team is implementing a multi-pronged strategy to champion the interests of Maine lobstermen and ensure that management efforts are effective in reversing the decline of the right whale population. As part of this effort, the MLA in an intervenor in the court case brought against NMFS by the conservation community and remains the only party from Maine with a presence in the case.

ASMFC Sets Lobster Control Date; NMFS proposes same in August
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) established a lobster and Jonah crab fishery control date of April 29, 2019 for LCMA 1, notifying current state and federal permit holders and any potential new entrants to the fishery that eligibility to participate in the commercial fishery in the future may be affected by the person’s or vessel’s past participation and associated documentation of landings, effort, and/or gear configuration prior to the control date. NOAA is conducting rulemaking to adopt this date for federal waters lobstermen. This means that any new entrants to the fishery after April 29, 2019, may be treated differently than those with fishing history prior to that date.

DMR rope study
The MLA continues to partner with DMR on the department’s rope study, which includes a gear survey to obtain baseline data on rope size and gear configurations fished by lobstermen, testing the functional breaking strength of vertical lines in use in the fishery, and understanding the strain vertical lines are under when hauling under various conditions. The survey had 647 responses from Maine, 139 responses from Massachusetts, 57 responses from New Hampshire, 13 responses from Rhode Island, and 11 responses from offshore fishermen.

DMR tested the relationship between rope breaking strength, diameter, rope modifications, and number of seasons fished. Results show that both diameter, rope modifications, and number of seasons fished significantly impact breaking strength. Rope diameter and presence of knots and splices have the strongest influence on breaking strength, followed by the number of seasons fished. The project team also documented the strain vertical lines are under while being hauled in varying fishing conditions and gear configurations. Eleven fishermen have participated to date. Based on the initial research findings, vertical line strain is most affected by the combination of traps per trawl and the depth in which the gear is set.

DMR is continuing to test various rope modifications that would meet a weak rope standard, if required under the whale plan. These include variations of different rope diameters, knot and splice configurations, and implementing weak devices into rope such as swivels, dogbones or other weak links. The MLA is also partnering with DMR to field-test time tension line cutters as a potential alternative to weakening endlines.

Gear Marking
In 2019 DMR finalized new gear marking requirements to be implemented by September, 2020. MLA members voiced strong support for Maine lobstermen to mark vertical lines differently than other states. Under Maine’s new gear marking rules, lobstermen fishing in Maine’s exempt waters are required to place a 12” purple mark in the middle and bottom of the line and a36” mark at the top. Gear in fished Maine’s non-exempt waters must be marked with three 12” purple marks at the top, middle and bottom of the, a 36” mark within in the top two Fathom of the endline, with a 6” green mark in the top gear marking.

Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative
The MLA continues to support and collaborate with the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative (MLMC). The MLA is in regular communication with the Collaborative to ensure that messaging on emerging issues is tightly coordinated. The MLA directs the many media calls received through our office to the Collaborative for vetting and response. The MLA worked closely with the Collaborative to develop a proactive campaign to communicate the facts about right whales and the Maine lobster industry. Through this effort, the Collaborative launched an information hub, www.rightwhalesandmainelobster.com, which features facts about the Maine lobster fishery’s efforts to protect right whales, as well as videos highlighting the industry’s whale conservation efforts. The MLA has also supported the evolution of the MLMC’s marketing plan for Maine lobster. The 2020 workplan shifts away from its chef- and consumer-driven focus to also encompass supply chain initiatives.

129th Legislature, First Session
MLA staff and board members weighed in on many lobster bills during the First session of the 129th Maine Legislature. The Marine Resources Committee considered an array of lobster bills on issues including the amount of time on the waiting list, grey zone fishing hours, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative funding structure, and marine debris. In the end, only a few of these bills made it into law, including a bill to clarify how the temporary medical allowance works, a bill for a pilot program to allow grey zone lobstermen to fish 24 hours during September and October, a bill to allow Class III license holders to take up to four unlicensed crewmembers, and a bill to allow Monhegan student license holders to fish during the closed season. The lobster waiting list bill was carried over to the next session in January 2020. Several important bills of interest to the lobster industry were passed outside the Marine Resources Committee. These include a bill to prohibit offshore oil and natural gas drilling, the Governor’s Climate Change bill, and a bill directing the Public Utilities Commission to approve a long-term contract with Maine AquaVentus for energy and capacity.

Maine Climate Change Council
The Governor’s Climate Change bill created the Maine Climate Council, comprised of 39 people. MLA’s executive director Patrice McCarron has been appointed to represent Maine fishermen. The Council’s task is to develop a climate plan to mitigate, prepare and adapt to climate change in the state. Through this legislation, Maine has committed to a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and an 80% reduction by 2050. In addition, Maine has committed to an 80% renewable energy supply by 2030 and 100% by 2050. The MLA testified neither for nor against this bill, citing the wide range of views amongst lobstermen on climate change and the fear that poorly-planned climate change solutions could be very costly to small businesses, like lobstering, while offering little reward. Lobstermen also worry about the potential for offshore wind development in the quest to meet renewable energy goals, which could threaten lobstering operations.

The Legislature passed a resolve to require the Public Utilities Commission to approve a long-term contract for the AquaVentus floating wind project proposed off Monhegan, which the MLA opposed. In November, the PUC voted to approve a 20-year contract under which Central Maine Power will purchase power produced from the project. Governor Mills also ended the Lepage-era ban on wind power development and withdrew Maine from an offshore drilling coalition.Maine has joined New Hampshire and Massachusetts in an offshore wind task force for the Gulf of Maine, established by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management agency (BOEM). The Task Force met in December to begin planning how and where to develop offshore wind energy in the Gulf of Maine. Maine’s offshore wind task force representatives stressed the importance of protecting Maine’s natural resources and the fishing and maritime industries. In response to the re-emergence of interest in offshore wind development in the Gulf of Maine, the MLA has joined RODA (Responsible Offshore Development Alliance) to ensure the association is prepared to effectively represent our members interests on this issue.

Lifejackets for Lobstermen
There were a few bright spots for the lobster fishery in 2019. Topping the list was the Lifejackets for Lobstermen project. In April, two fieldwork coordinators with the Northeast Center for Occupational Safety and Health began an eight-month adventure, travelling in two vans from port to port along the Maine and Massachusetts coastlines. The vans carried 11 models of personal flotation devices (PFDs) available for purchase at a 50% discount. The vans visited 53 ports over 159 days to promote the project and give lobstermen an opportunity to try on and purchase lifejackets. The project surpassed expectations, distributing 1,076 lifejackets to Northeast lobstermen. The MLA was the Center’s partner in Maine.

Tier 4 Engines
The MLA’s work in collaboration with Peter Emerson of Mack Boring and Parts to help lobstermen comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Tier 4 engine emissions requirements was successful: in late summer, the EPA proposed delaying this requirement until 2024.

The MLA testified on behalf of MLA members in support of EPA’s proposal in September at the public hearing in Bath and submitted written comments in support of the agency’s proposal to extend the implementation time to implement the Tier 4 engine emission standard. The MLA comments state, “The current Tier 4 marine diesel engine emission standard is a mismatch for the Maine lobster fleet. In the short-term, the MLA supports the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal to phase in the implementation of the Tier 4 standards through 2024 for vessels with non-metal hulls up to 50 feet in length. This will allow Maine’s boat builders and marine engine manufacturers the necessary time to seek out potential workable solutions to meet the Tier 4 requirements. However, the MLA is not optimistic that affordable, operationally feasible solutions will be available given the lack of progress to date, or warranted given the low level of emissions from this marine engine sector.”

Aquaculture
The MLA remains supportive of Maine’s aquaculture industry as an important segment of the state’s working waterfront. Many lobstermen are diversifying into aquaculture, which is a good fit for many fishermen and coastal communities. However, the MLA has expressed its concerns over the rate of growth in the aquaculture industry, siting aquaculture leases that are greater than 10 acres in size, and the movement towards consolidating existing leases into larger footprints. The MLA believes the state must ensure that the aquaculture permitting process adequately consults existing users as one means of regulating the pace of aquaculture expansion.

The MLA is also monitoring the development of two land-based recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) in Belfast and Bucksport. Whole Oceans is moving forward with plans to raise Atlantic salmon on 104 acres at the former Verso paper mill site. Nordic Aquafarms is moving forward with plans to raise Atlantic salmon on a 56-acre site off of Route 1 in Belfast.

Membership Benefits
While policy and advocacy are the bread and butter of MLA’s work, the MLA also strives to offer a meaningful membership program to lobstermen. The MLA maintains a robust portfolio of benefits for its members including the MLA’s vessel insurance program, monthly newspaper, weekly email updates on relevant news, weekly lobster, bait and fuel prices, and business discounts.

What’s Next?
As we’ve done since 1954, the MLA will continue to pursue its mission to advocate for a sustainable lobster resource and the fishermen and communities that depend on it. The MLA has been in business for more than 60 years, a sign of its value to Maine’s lobstering communities. That so much can be accomplished in a single year with only two employees is an indication of the dedication of the MLA’s board of directors and staff.

Please take some time to consider all that the MLA has done on your behalf during this past year. And I hope to see you at the Annual Meeting in March!