National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials met the public during an afternoon session at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum in March. Michael Pentony, Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) administrator, Jon Hare, science and research director at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and Eric Reid, New England Fishery Management Council chair, formed the panel.
Among the issues in the minds of many attending were possible leasing of the Gulf of Maine for offshore wind development, future right whale protection measures, and the dual roles GARFO plays in the region.
Gerry Cushman, a Port Clyde lobsterman, questioned Pentony on how his agency interacts with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). He questioned what sense it made to begin offshore wind projects while so much federal emphasis is being put on protecting endangered right whales, harming the ability of lobstermen to fish.
“We are doing everything we can to get BOEM the information that we think they need and should be using,” Pentony replied. He urged fishermen to stay engaged in BOEM’s long review process for approving any leases in the Gulf of Maine. “What’s going to happen in the Gulf is totally different than what’s happening elsewhere because there will be floating turbines here. And yes, all the Gulf of Maine is critical habitat for right whales. As long as the states want offshore wind in the Gulf we will have to engage with BOEM.”
Reid, a former commercial fisherman and now fisheries consultant, pointed out that offshore leasing is new in the Gulf. “You have the opportunity to craft what happens. The Wind Map [Governor’s Offshore Wind Roadmap, released in February 2023] is fabulous,” he said. “You have to engage every single time. If you don’t do it, then it’s all on you.”
Ben Marten, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association executive director, asked the panel about the dual responsibilities of GARFO. “Is advocacy for fishermen part of GARFO or the Fisheries Science Center?” he questioned. After noting his agency’s conservation and management duties as laid out in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Pentony spoke about the larger picture. “This Administration [Biden] is going for offshore wind. Our agency [NOAA] wants us to work with BOEM to make that happen,” he said.
Patrice McCarron, policy director at the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, questioned Pentony on the agency’s vision for ropeless fishing in the lobster fishery. She referenced GARFO’s Roadmap to Ropeless Fishing, released last summer, which envisions strategic adoption of ropeless fishing in the areas that pose the highest risk to right whales. Specifically, the report states that ropeless fishing gear is a tool that would allow fishermen access to fish in right whale closure areas. She also pointed out that in Pentony’s court declaration, made pursuant to the NGO’s legal case against NMFS, he stated that presently, a 98% risk reduction in the lobster fishery can only be achieved through full closure of both state and federal waters or by broad-scale adoption of ropeless fishing.
“NMFS is sending conflicting messages to the industry. One the one hand you say it is a tool to get guys fishing who are shut out due to closures. On the other hand you are saying the only way for the fishery to continue is if everyone converts to it. Which is it? If everyone must use it, many won’t be able to,” McCarron said. “Broad scale adoption would put many out of business. It’s very confusing, very conflicting.”
“The target for risk reduction is changing each year,” Pentony replied. “Ropeless [gear] can be a tool and opportunity for fishermen. What’s shifting is the area that needs to be closed. We can have more, smaller, discretionary closures with ropeless. However, the size and duration of the closures will likely increase. By 2030, we may have large, long closures.”