“Tough Times Ahead” warns DMR

The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) addressed several of the state’s seven zone councils during January, and will finish this round of meetings in February. Department staff updated zone council members on the status of numerous issues facing the fishery, including legal cases relevant to the whale rules, regulatory changes related to those rules, an increase in trap tag fees, and other matters.

Megan Ware, DMR director of external affairs, provided an overview of conservation measures lobstermen must implement by May 1, 2022 to comply with changes to the federal Whale Plan. Ware explained that as part of this process, the state must update its marine regulations to reflect elements of the whale rule, specifically the trawling up, gear marking and weak points measures. The definition of pocket waters won’t change (they will continue to be treated as state waters) and the ¼-mile exemption around Maine’s islands will remain in place. When the state puts the new trawl minimums required under the Whale Plan into regulation, it must resolve any conflicts with existing state regulations that limit the length of trawls (trawl maximums) in certain areas. The Lobster Management Area 1 (LMA1) closure will be incorporated into state law.

NMFS approved 1700 pound weak link made by Seaside. GARFO photo.
Weak rope w/ purple tracer. Ketchum Trap photo.

Concerning weak links, Ware explained that NMFS has approved three methods to meet the weak insert requirements in non-exempt waters. These include use of 1700 pound braided sleeve (aka, southshore sleeve), use of manufactured 1700 pound rope, or insertion of a plastic in-line weak link into the buoy line. Ware reported that supply chain problems have delayed production of manufactured weak rope and in-line weak links. DMR has been told by manufacturers that plastic weak links could be available for purchase in February. Maine DMR submitted options for consideration by NMFS to include the use of knots, however, NMFS not yet ruled on whether these methods will be allowed. NMFS maintains a list of approved weak insert options on its website (https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-mid-atlantic/marine-mammal-protection/atlantic-large-whale-take-reduction-plan).

DMR plans to approve additional weak insert options for lobster gear fished in Maine’s exempt waters. The state will conduct rulemaking to allow the use of a three-foot section of 5/16” line to be used as an weak insert if it is connected to the stronger line on each end with either a fisherman’s knot or sheet bend. Alternatively, DMR will allow the top half of the buoy line to be rigged with 5/16” rope that has an overhand knot to meet the weak insert requirement in Maine’s exempt waters.

DMR’s presentation on the whale rules is on the DMR website: https://www.maine.gov/dmr/science-research/species/lobster/documents/LAC%20Dec%202021%20Presentation.pdf

DMR deputy commissioner Meredith Mendelson spoke about the court cases related to the whale rules. The DMR has hired Nossaman LLP, a national legal firm based in Los Angeles, California to represent the Department in two of the pending litigations. In September 2021, the DMR became an intervenor in the Washington D.C. District Court case brought by four national environmental organizations which seeks to have the newest Biological Opinion and Final Rule for the lobster fishery revoked, arguing that it does not do enough, quickly enough, to protect North Atlantic right whales. The department is also an intervenor in the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) case against NMFS which argues that NMFS did not use the best available scientific data when formulating the Biological Opinion, among other issues.

The Maine Lobstering Union’s suit on the legality of the LMA1 closure instituted by NMFS has not yet moved through court. Massachusetts whale advocate Max Strahan’s legal suits in Maine and Massachusetts have been dismissed. In the Massachusetts case, however, the judge took the unusual step of making a statement about what should be done if the suit again reaches the court, specifically that Massachusetts must obtain an Incidental Take Permit to continue to permit vertical buoy lines in its state waters fisheries.

DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher and Director of Marine Policy Deirdre Gilbert spoke about the rise in trap tag fees from 50 cents to 75 cents. Trap tag fees go into the Lobster Management Fund. The Fund helps pay the cost of DMR staff involved in lobster management. In 2018, the cost to manufacture the trap tags quadrupled. For the past three years, DMR has juggled funds to pay for staff positions. Last year the department requested new bids to manufacture the trap tags; the two bids received were both higher than the current contract. “I waited as long as I could without doing any increase,” Commissioner Keliher said. “But we are spending a half a million more than we are bringing in.”

The department plans to use the 2021 federal Consolidated Appropriations Act funds awarded to Maine to create a license reimbursement program for fishermen. The program will repay fishermen for the cost of an annual commercial license.

DMR was tasked by the Marine Resources Committee to inform Zones G, F and D that the Legislature remains concerned about the length of time that individuals remain on the zones’ lobster entry waiting list. This conversation began when LD 28 was proposed during the 129th Legislature limit time on the lobster entry waiting list to 10 years. The Legislature has directed DMR to raise this issue with those Zone Councils to consider changing its ratio from tags to licenses, or to lower the exit/entry ratio. The Commissioner acknowledged that this is a difficult conversation given the 98% risk reduction facing the lobster industry. Presently, Zone G has the longest waiting list with approximately 17 people who have been waiting more than 10 years.

Weak Insert Requirements

There are a lot of questions and fewer answers about how to comply with weak inserts. All vertical lines must be rigged with weak inserts by May 1, 2022.

Weak Point Requirements by Zone/Distance from Shore:

  • State waters: 1 weak point 50% down line or 50% of buoy line weak rope.
  • 3 to 12 miles / Zones A west, B, C, D, E: 2 weak points 25% and 50% down the line, or top 50% of buoy line weak rope.
  • 3 to 12 miles / Zones A east, F, G: 1 weak point 33% down the line.
  • Outside 12 miles: 1 weak point 33% down the line.

NMFS Approved Options for Weak Inserts in Non-exempt Waters (as of Jan 2022) :

  • insert an approved three-foot section of manufactured 1,700 pound rope.
  • insert a three-foot long 1,700 pound braided “south shore” sleeve.
  • insert a manufactured 1,700 pound weak link into the rope.

CHECK THE NMFS WEBSITE FOR UPDATES! NMFS posts updates to approved weak insert options on its website: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/new-england-midatlantic/marine-mammal-protection/approved-weak-inserts-and-line-atlantic-large

Where can I purchase weak inserts? (as of Jan 2022)

  • The approved in-line weak insert is manufactured by Seaside Rope in Warren, Maine. It may be available for purchase in stores in February. Plantes Buoy Sticks is also developing an in-line weak insert for approval by NMFS but is not yet available.
  • Approved manufactured 1700-pound ropes are manufactured by Rocky Mount Cordage (available in red or candy cane at Ketchum Trap in New Bedford, MA), and Neocorp 3/8” polyester rope (1021) and Neocorp Seaway 5/16” #10 braid (available at Brooks Trap Mill in Maine and RI).
  • The southshore sleeve is manufactured by Novabraid and is available at NEMI in New Hampshire.

What about the knots developed by lobstermen in partnership with DMR?

DMR submitted several options using knots developed by lobstermen, and tested by DMR, to NMFS for approval during the summer 2021.

NMFS has convened a panel to review these options. NMFS informed the industry that a decision would be reach in November 2021, however, NMFS has not yet made a determination whether certain knots will be approved for use in non-exempt waters.

Additional options for weak inserts in Exempt Waters:

  • The state will adopt the new federal whale rules into state regulations. While NMFS has sole authority to set standards for weak inserts in non-exempt waters, Maine has flexibility to set the standard for weak inserts in Maine’s exempt waters.
  • DMR determined that 5/16” rope on its own does not consistently break below 1700 pounds. However, if fished with an overhand knot in the line, or connecting a section of 5/16” rope to stronger line with a fisherman’s knot or sheet bend, it does meet the 1,700 pound standard.
  • Maine will be proposing the use of 5/16” rope with a knot to meet the weak insert requirement in Maine’s EXEMPT waters.
The state of Maine must approve these options through state rulemaking

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