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'A Total Reinvention Of The Lobster Fishery': Two Takes On The Impact Of New Federal Regulations To Protect Right Whales

Maine Lobsters
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE- In this Sept. 21, 2020 file photo, a sternman checks a lobster while fishing off South Portland, Maine. The Maine Department of Marine Resources said Wednesday fishermen caught more than 96 million pounds of lobsters in 2020.

Last week the federal government issued its long-awaited set of regulations— including a switch to ropeless traps — that aim to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from deadly entanglements in fishing gear. There are fewer than 370 of the animals left on the planet, and federal regulators have a goal to quickly reduce their risk of entanglement by 68%, and further reduce that risk by 98% within a decade.

Patrick Keliher, Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, says some 967-square miles of fishing grounds in federal waters off the mid-coast will now be closed from October to January. He says those fisherman will likely seek out new territory. Keliher recently spoke with Maine Public’s Fred Bever.

Patrick Keliher: When they move, they're going to move to go find another area to fish, and people are already going to be there. Right? So then then it creates the social problems of is there going to be enough room for them to, for them to move on bottom that will be productive to catch lobster. This doesn't even touch on the shore side, right? You're talking about in some of the biggest ports in the state, Vinalhaven, Stonington -- all of that product that was coming ashore that may not be coming ashore now, we're gonna have to wait and see -- but they could be severely impacted as well.

Fred Bever: And enforcement on either side -- how do you think that's going to work? What do you think the patterns are going to be?

Patrick Keliher: We're certainly going to see some gear conflict issues as fishermen move outside of those zones. That's a given. Right? That's going to fall on the Mainr Marine Patrol to sort those things out. And there is no plan that I'm aware of by the federal agency to enforce this closure. It's coming in 30 days.

Fred Bever: If this is what a 68% risk reduction for the whales looks like? What is it 98% risk reduction, which is what the feds are calling for within 10 years, what does that look like?

Patrick Keliher: It's a total reinvention of the lobster fishery. Total reinvention. I mean, drastic trap reductions, you know, with with much less line in the water, and I don't even know how to even comment around the ropeless components of this. Ropeless is so far down the road, and we're going to have to come to the table to talk about that now. You know, but when I hear that ropeless is working now, and I hear examples of it working, you know, 75% of the time -- that is nowhere close to being good enough. If it's not, if it's not working 100% of the time, it doesn't work.

Fred Bever: I have to say that it's a bit of a shift that you say you have to come to the table now. You've you've been stiff arming any talk of ropeless until now. Are you going to now have to take a look at it, consider it seriously as something that needs to be developed and researched here in Maine?

Patrick Keliher: Yeah, we have to look at all the options. You know, there's no question that the biological opinion puts a framework in place that has a big reduction coming in 2025. And another big one coming in 2030. To meet that 98% risk reduction, we need to do a lot to expand expand data needs here in a very short amount of time. We're going to need congressional help to put money on the table to help us with those things, while at the same time we're helping offset the costs associated with this very onerous rule. So, you know, we need to find a way to create some protections on whales, but I think we can do this without putting it totally on the backs of the fishermen.

Zack Klyver, the science director with the group Blue Planet Strategies, has a different view on the issue. Klyver spoke to Maine Public's Robbie Feinberg.

Robbie Feinberg: So the most talked about piece of these new rules is clearly the seasonal closure of about 967 square miles off of the mid-coast. We're clearly hearing from the state and industry that this closure could dramatically affect revenue and could force some fishermen to even move to other waters where other fishermen might already be. How do you feel about disclosure and what it will mean for the region?

Zack Klyver: I'm sympathetic to them and know that they work extremely hard, and that they are doing the best that they can. I am aware that NOAA really was looking at the sightings data and felt that that area was an area of high co-occurrence between gear and right whales at that time. And having seen dozens of right whales off the coast of Maine in my 30 years of guiding whale watching trips, I'm also well aware that there's a lot of sightings from around Mount Desert Rock and in the Schoodic Ridges area, and they chose not to put a closure there. So I do think that it could have been it could have been more severe.

Robbie Feinberg: I wanted to ask you about the possibility of fishermen adapting to these new rules and possibly implementing new ropeless fishing technology. You've been working with some fishermen on this technology. Where do things stand right now? Are people actually trying this out?

Zack Klyver: Yes, we're testing with fishermen up and down the entire coast. We did a lot of testing on our own last summer and fall. Now we're working with fishermen hand in hand to test the gear and see what potential this could be to be part of the solution. And I think there's a real hope that this could play a part. And imagine if all the offshore area where right whales are in high occurrence off the coast of Maine, we know that it's out 20 or 30 miles, especially that that's where right whale habitat is. So if you could remove one vertical line when you have to inlines on these long sets of traps of 15 to 25 traps, and you could remove one inline and put a ropeless unit and you can mark that gear and know exactly where it is, so every fisherman could see that, you automatically have a 50% reduction in line. That's a huge conservation savings and allows them to continue to fish. And then we can see where we go from that. I think once the fishermen get ropeless in their hands and start working with it and see what it can do for them. They're going to be pleasantly surprised at what the opportunity is here. And I'm not trying to oversell this. I don't know yet. I'm still learning. But what I've seen has been very exciting.

Robbie Feinberg: How feasible do you see this being just in the next few months? There are still a lot of costs associated with this technology. And you know, the industry has been pretty resistant so far. How feasible do you see this being?

Zack Klyver: It's not necessarily the feasibility at this point, it's the fact that we don't have enough manufacturing and enough gear in the system. We need a big investment from our state of Maine, from the governor's office, from the Maine legislature, from the Maine congressional delegation -- they could really help lead the way by providing financial support to help develop this technology and see how far we can go with it.

Robbie Feinberg: On the conservation side of this, a lot of groups have said that these rules don't actually go far enough and then even more is needed to protect right whales, what's your take on it?

Zack Klyver: We really need to be doing everything we can to reduce entanglements. We have to not try to point the finger at something else or say it's not our issue, it's not our problem. We've got to figure out a way for the right whale and for the other whales that we can go forward. And, you know, in 20 years, this could be solved and the right whale could be saved. Clearly the fishermen want to know what they're doing is making a difference and I believe it will if we can find our way through this.

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.