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Federal Regulators Say Maine's Proposed Lobster Gear Rules Don't Go Far Enough

Fred Bever
Maine Public File
In this Aug. 2019 photo, Mike Sargent of Steuben has woven plastic "weak links" into lobster trap rope for a state experiment on whether the gear could help right whales avoid deadly entanglements.

Federal fisheries regulators are saying that Maine's proposed lobster gear rules, which were designed to reduce the risk to endangered North Atlantic right whales, don't go far enough.

Patrick Keliher, Maine's commissioner of Marine Resources, delivered the news to lawmakers Tuesday. He says Maine did propose a robust set of measures to address the issue. One would require offshore lobster boats to place more traps on each line, thereby reducing the overall number of vertical ropes in the water. Another would weave weak links into their rope, which adult whales would be able to break through.

The state calculates its measures would reduce the risk of dangerous entanglements by 52 percent. But in a letter to Maine's Department of Marine Resources last month, the regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service said that the feds would not accept less than a 60 percent risk reduction.

Keliher says that while some lobstermen want the state to stop working with the feds, defiance could lead to a federal mandate to lower trap limits or close off entire areas to fishing. He says that's what happened several years ago, when Massachusetts did not offer a plan to reduce risk to whales that congregate in Massachusetts Bay.

"They ended up with a very large closure in Mass. Bay, one they are still trying to figure out how they can get around," he says. "What I believe is going to happen is you might see an expansion of that closure in time and on area. And so once those things are in place, it's very hard for them to go away."

Keliher says if the feds impose more restrictive rules, they are not likely to go into effect before 2021. He notes, however, that two federal lawsuits brought by conservation groups could force action sooner than that.

Keliher is set to meet with members of the state Lobster Advisory Council, made up of lobstermen from lobster management zones up and down the coast, late Wednesday afternoon.

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.