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New Proposed Lobstering Rules Call For Seasonal Closures, Gear Tweaks To Reduce Right Whale Deaths

Michael Dwyer
Associated Press file
In this March 28, 2018 file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass.

The federal government this morning published proposed new regulations for the East Coast lobster fishery that aim to reduce the risk that endangered North Atlantic right whales will become entangled in trap lines.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing seasonal closures of some federal waters — including an area about 30 miles off Maine’s coast — from October through the end of January. It's an area of almost 1,000 square miles.

The proposal also would require more traps to be deployed on a single line — with some adjustments depending on distance from shore and to protect fishermen's safety. And the feds are also proposing to require breakaway links to rope lines, and permitting the use of so-called “ropeless” gear in otherwise closed areas.

Below is a table excerpted from the “Draft Environmental Impact Statement” that accompanied NOAA’s draft rule. “Alternative 2” is the agency’s “preferred” rule:

The full 77-page proposal estimates the economic impacts for lobstermen fishing in federal waters at $15.4 million in first year, and up to $12.3 million annually after that, due to the cost of gear changes and reduced catch.

The government is seeking public comment on the proposal. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that it must impose new rules by May.

There are fewer than 400 of the whales estimated to be alive in the world.

Maine Public reporter Fred Bever spoke with All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty about the proposed rules and an accompanying Environmental Impact statement — that totals more than 300 pages.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Flaherty: Fred, the basic principle here is that the ropes lobstermen use to haul their traps can harm whales, right?

Bever: Yes. The whales can become entangled in the ropes and traps, which cut them, get embedded in their flesh, slow them down and ultimately can kill them. Scientists say that entanglements and ship strikes have reduced their numbers to fewer than 400.

And conservationists have been suing for better protections.

Earlier this year, a judge ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service was violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing trap-pot fishing in regulated waters. He later gave the feds until May to enact new rules. And today’s proposals are a major step toward actual changes on the water.

The basic idea is to have less rope in the water less often, and weaker rope in the water. The goal is reducing entanglement risk by 60 percent. The feds are proposing several alternatives, but for now I’ll stick to what the agency calls it’s “preferred” alternative.

The attention grabber is to close off large areas of the ocean to all trap-rope fishing in seasons when whales are considered likely to be around. That includes expanding existing closures off Massachusetts, where they’ve been congregating to feed in recent years.

But we haven’t had any closures near Maine.

The feds now propose closing off a 967-square-mile swath of ocean about 30 miles off our coast, from October through the end of January. The feds say there are 45 boats permitted to fish in that zone.

Now those lobstermen probably won’t like that, nor might those who could find their own territory more crowded when those boats move to new fishing areas near them.

What else is on the table?

Well there’s something called trawling up, which is when lobstermen attach more traps to each vertical line they put in the water. That means fewer lines that whales might need to navigate.

Maine lobstermen have been looking at this for some time, right?

State regulators and lobstermen have been working hard this year to agree on trawling up and other measures that make sense to them. They include using weaker rope or installing weak links in the rope to make it easier for whales to break through. And better gear marking so that when a whale is found entangled, you can tell where that happened.

It’s tough work, because the tides and the terrain where Maine’s 3,000-some-odd lobstermen drop their traps varies so widely off the coast. Many are deeply worried that their safety and livelihoods will be put at risk. And angry because they don’t accept there is a real risk of whales swimming so close to Maine.

But they were preparing for this.

And the federal proposal does appear to be roughly in line with what the industry was expecting. I spoke to John Drouin, a Cutler lobsterman who has been following the process closely, and participating.

He says even with the possible seasonal closure, at first blush, the proposals could’ve been worse. But he’s not expecting a collective sigh of relief from the lobstering community.

‘I think there are going to be a lot of fishermen, they don’t put a lot of faith in the government anyways and the people that are regulating stuff. So when stuff finally comes out if we get mailings or something like that and the guys read them, yeah there are going to be a lot of guys that are shocked,’ Drouin says.

What about the conservationists?

They call it a good first step, but way late, and it doesn’t do nearly enough to avert the whale’s extinction. Here’s Erica Fuller, of the Conservation Law Foundation:

‘We’re concerned about the agency’s reliance on weak rope,’ Fuller says, ‘and we’re concerned that it doesn’t appear that they are going to take any emergency action before these measures are effective on the water. Unless I’ve just missed it I don’t see an implementation date, and that relies heavily on Mass. and Maine implementing their own measures, which may have an even different implementation date.’

And the conservationists are also complaining that the rule is based on outdated estimates of the whales’ survival rate. Fuller says closures off Massachusetts should be bigger and longer than proposed, although interestingly, she also wants to see more evidence that the proposed closure off Maine would have any effect at all.

So now a public comment clock starts ticking, and it ends March 1.

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.