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Maine gets $5M to support testing of alternative lobster fishing gear

A ropeless lobster trap.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A ropeless lobster trap.

Maine has received more than $5 million from the National fish and Wildlife Foundation to expand the testing of alternative lobster fishing gear.

State officials see the work as a way to get more Maine feedback into the hands of federal regulators, who are looking for ways to further reduce the risk of entanglement and injury to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources said the funds will support the research and testing of two kinds of emerging technology — gear that retrieves lobster traps from the ocean floor without the use of vertical lines and acoustic geolocation devices that identify traps without surface buoys.

The federal government may eventually require the use of this gear as it drafts new right whale management regulations over the next five years.

Much of the $5 million will directly cover a training and outreach program with a variety of coastal organizations, which include the Maine Sea Grant, the Island Institute Institute and the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association, among others.

"They'll be able to help set up regional hubs for doing demonstrations with the gear, training fishermen how to use it, doing data collection with fishermen who are utilizing the gear," said Erin Summers, the lead for the Marine Mammal Research Division at the Maine DMR.

Most Maine lobstermen have been reluctant, if not resistant, to considering the use so-called "on-demand" gear.

Erin Pelletier is the executive director of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, which is also participating in the DMR research program. She said she's encouraging fishermen to take part in the testing.

"They need to have some sort of say and give feedback to the gear manufacturers and to the feds to say that this may or may not work," Pelletier said. "But it really, really needs to be tested in the field, as they're fishing on a regular basis."

Fishermen will borrow equipment from a recently-created alternative gear library, which is partially paid for through a $100,000 donation from the Nature Conservancy of Maine. Additional on-demand fishing gear will be paid for through federal funds that Maine received in last year's omnibus spending bill.

Summers said fishermen who test this gear will be compensated by the haul.

"Our fleet is really diverse," she said. "All the fishing conditions that they encounter up and down the coast — inshore, offshore — are very distinct from each other. The sizes of their boats, the number of crew, all of those things compound what types of gear they're going to be able to use. And we really need to document all of those challenges."

Testing of the on-demand trap retrieval gear and the evaluation of geolocation devices is expected to begin next year.