Guest Column: Proposed Regulations Place Unfair Burden On Lobstermen

I want to start off by saying thank you to Maine lobstermen for all your hard work on right whales. After two decades of compliance with federal whale rules, you are again being called on by NOAA to make sacrifices to save an animal very few of you have ever seen.

Pat Keliher is the DMR Commissioner. DMR photo.

Since 2019 we have held 60 meetings with more than 2500 license holders participating. You have agreed with us, disagreed with us, and in some cases been downright pissed at us for some of the directions we have proposed – yet we continued to move forward against what seemed like tremendous odds.

You have given us critical input so we could develop a plan that not only meets the required risk reduction goal, but also recognizes the unique fishing practices along Maine’s coast.

As you have said, and as I’ve reiterated on your behalf, a one-size-fits-all approach for the Maine lobster industry won’t work. The water and the bottom downeast are different from the water and bottom to the westward. And because of those differences, fishing practices are also different.
The plan DMR put together was made stronger because of the knowledge and input of the individual Zone Councils. We proposed flexibility in trawl configurations so fishermen could make their own decisions regarding what they could safely fish, and we asked for the authority for zones to develop zone-specific measures that achieve the required risk reduction.
NOAA’s proposed rule dismissed both components of our plan.

In the Department’s comments, we reiterated the importance of treating a trawl with two endlines as equivalent to a trawl with one endline and half as many traps. We also advanced the zone-specific proposals that were developed this past summer to tailor trawling up and weak point provisions to better match each zone’s conditions while still achieving the same risk reduction.

We were optimistic that NOAA would recognize the value of the plan we developed together, even though we knew it would create hardships on this industry. But just as a light seemed to appear at the end of this long tunnel, NMFS released the draft Biological Opinion (required under the Endangered Species Act).

It was like I was sucker-punched as I reviewed the document.
First, the Bi-Op is clearly aimed at converting Maine’s lobster industry to a ropeless fishery. We know that this technology is untested, unproven and unaffordable. Gear conflict with our mobile fleet and the lack of a plan to equip Marine Patrol with the resources to haul gear are just two of its major problems.

The Bi-Op also places an unfair burden on Maine’s lobster industry. Assigning 50% of the unattributed deaths and injuries isn’t supported by the data. Anyone can see that you are being asked to carry too much of the burden.

The 98% risk reduction over ten years outlined in the Bi-Op has the very real possibility of devastating Maine’s lobster industry. It is not only fishermen and their crew who will be impacted. Gear suppliers, trap builders, rope manufacturers, all these businesses face a deeply uncertain future.

While the Bi-Op is required for the fishery to occur, DMR will continue to look for opportunities to mitigate these impacts as we move forward.
In addition to the whale rules, the COVID-19 pandemic created a lot of uncertainty for Maine’s lobster industry in 2020.

At this time last year industry members were starting to question the impact of the pending market collapse on price. How would the loss of restaurants, hotels, cruise ships and casinos impact ex-vessel value?
A lot of ideas were batted around, including measures to slow the fishery. I reached out to many dealers and fishermen to better understand what folks anticipated in this unprecedented situation. Through those conversations, I gained confidence that the industry could work together, sharing information about market conditions and making adjustments accordingly. The industry’s response surpassed my expectations, with dealers redirecting product to new markets, sustaining the price better than anyone could have imagined.

Pounds landed were down by approximately 5%, but according to our landings program, trips were also down by about 16%. Overall, lobster landings were just over 96 million pounds in 2020 compared to just under 102 million pounds in 2019.

Maine’s lobster industry made the necessary adjustments throughout the year based on market conditions. The result was a $4.20 boat price that was significantly better that the $3.76 average boat price between 2011 and 2020. The resulting total value of just over $405 million was just the seventh year that Maine harvesters earned over $400 million for their catch.

I’ve always known that Maine lobstermen solve problems, look ahead, and keep fishing. Challenges aren’t going away, in fact, based on the Bi-Op, they will likely get worse. We will all need to roll up our sleeves and think about what is next. DMR will continue to coordinate with the industry and based on the results of the federal rule we will determine what steps we will take next.

DMR’s comments on the Bi-Op and the Proposed Rule can be found at www.maine.gov/dmr/science-research/species/lobster/index.html.

Stay safe.
-Pat

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