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Lobstermen: Documents Reveal 'Catastrophic Impact' Right Whale Protections Could Have On Industry

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press
A lobster fisherman heads out to set his traps, Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Portland, Maine.

Newly released documents by Maine’s Department of Resources are providing a glimpse of what federal action to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales could look like — including the closure of extensive areas of offshore ocean to lobstering.

In an August letter to the head of the agency that reviews proposed federal regulations, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher asked for a meeting to go over options for reducing the risk of right whales becoming dangerously entangled in lobster trap gear and rope.

That was after conversations with the federal Northeast Fisheries Science Center that brought to light a proposal that could put big swaths of ocean off-limits to lobstering — in federal waters known as Lobster Conservation Management Areas, or LCMAs.

LCMA 1, in particular, is heavily fished by Maine lobster boats.

“The concern was those areas in Area 3 could come across to Area 1 if, in fact, we don’t meet our risk reduction target,” Keliher says.

He says the potential closure described by federal officials could reduce access to fishing grounds 12 miles or more offshore for lobster boats based from Penobscot Bay to Schoodic Point Down East.

Keliher could not give an estimate of the acreage of the area involved. But using lobster landings data from last year, he and his staff calculated that had such closures been in place then, they would have blocked more than 3,000 boat trips and reduced the value of offshore landings by $14 million.

That’s more than half the offshore fleet’s annual take and about three percent of last year’s total Maine lobster landings of $485 million.

Keliher says the effects would reach well beyond that.

“It is going to create losses because of competition within other areas. It’s going to create gear conflict, it is going to create all sorts of other issues associated with the shifting of a large amount of gear into areas that are already fished,” he says.

“I’m a little bit staggered by this, I have to say,” says Genevieve McDonald, a Stonington lobsterman who sits on the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee. She represents many who fish the offshore waters that could be affected.

“$14 million may sound relatively small in comparison to the statewide value. But it would have a catastrophic impact on not just the economy but also the character of the islands in Penobscot Bay,” she says.

McDonald says the industry has been well warned that closures could be part of the new rules the feds are working on now. But she says this first public indicator of what the specifics might look like in Maine opens a sobering window on what the future could hold.

McDonald and Keliher both argue that closures do not make sense for deep waters off the state’s coast, because fishermen would likely respond by relocating their traps just outside the closed zones, creating a fence or curtain of rope that could be more dangerous for any whales swimming through.

“Even if it didn’t create a curtain effect, and it did move all of that gear inshore, that’s still problematic,” McDonald says. “You still have a tremendous amount of crowding inshore, you have a limited resource inshore, we’re seeing landings move offshore. So you’re looking at trying to sustain an offshore fleet on inshore landings, and I don’t think that’s possible either.”

Conservationists who’ve sued the federal government to force quicker action to protect the roughly 400 whales left on the planet say removing rope from the water is the only sure way to meaningfully reduce entanglement risk. And some argue that closures can speed up innovation.

“For a large whale to go extinct in the U.S., which has some of the brightest minds and greatest technological experts and a can-do-spirit, is just appalling to think about,” says Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society of the United States.

Young notes that in response to a seasonal closure of whale feeding grounds off Cape Cod, some Massachusetts fishermen are experimenting with “ropeless” or “buoy-less” lobster trap technology, which uses GPS and radio signals to set and retrieve traps on the ocean floor.

Maine’s lobstermen remain deeply skeptical of the technology. And for months, Keliher has been working up and down the coast to devise responses specific to the diverse conditions in different parts of the Maine fishery. Those include the use of breakaway ropes that whales can swim through and tying more traps to each line to reduce the overall amount of rope in the water — a practice called “trawling up.”

But the risk-reduction solutions should not include area closures large or small, Keliher says.

“Our goal is to balance the needs of the industry with the conservation of right whales. And I don’t want to do this with just a handful of individuals. We can do this with weak line, we can do this with trawling up. And we can do it in a way that is safe for the whales and sustainable for the harvester, for the individual fisherman,” he says.

DMR staff did ultimately get a new meeting with federal officials, where they outlined their concerns. But there has been no communication since, and federal officials did not respond to requests for comment.

A proposed new rule has been delayed multiple times, and Keliher says until one is released there is no way to be sure of just where or even whether any closures would be proposed. But a U.S. judge recently ruled that the government must take action by May. And a draft rule is expected to be published in the federal register by early next month.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.