More than 100 Downeast lobstermen turned out in Trenton Tuesday night for a meeting with the state’s top marine resources official to weigh in on gear and other changes that will be imposed within two years to reduce the risk that endangered North Atlantic right whales will be entangled.
Patrick Keliher, Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, told the crowd in the local elementary school gym that he would not be surprised if some wanted to yell at him.
“Feel free to yell at me," he said, "but it is the federal government and the federal laws that are driving the bus here.”
Keliher asked the lobstermen to help him devise the best combination of gear changes or other measures, such as reduced fishing effort, that could meet a federally-mandated goal of reducing the risk of whale injury or death by 60 percent - and to meet that goal on their own terms, before the federal government imposes more drastic rules.
“One of the things I always said I was going to do was to get the input of the industry," he said. "And this is my way of trying to keep that promise to you guys.”
The single most significant effort will be to cut in half the amount of rope Maine fishermen put in the water. That could mean reducing per-boat trap limits from 800 to 600 or fewer, or putting more traps on a single rope – potential gear and fishing practice changes that are angering some lobstermen.
Several complained that they’d never even seen a right whale in Maine’s fishing grounds.
“I think some will tell you that there’s been no right whale deaths in Maine in over a decade. Somehow that’s slipped through the cracks,” said David Horner, who chairs the council of lobstermen that represents the harvesting zone that surrounds Mount Desert Island.
Chris Moore, who fishes out of Northeast Harbor, says new rope restrictions will likely make new lobster licenses more scarce – because each could represent added rope in the water. That means fewer young people getting into the business, he says. And older lobstermen, he adds, simple might not be strong enough to safely haul rope lines that are burdened with more and more traps.
“It’s the most vulnerable in the industry who are going to be most affected, the older and the young," Moore said. "For me I can live through this. For others, it’ll be a death blow.”
Horner said the new regulations will likely force some lobstermen out of business, but he adds that, as a whole, the industry should be able to adapt. And, like many of the lobstermen there, he credited Keliher for asking lobstermen in each zone to help the state choose a menu of specific strategies to meet the overarching federal mandate.
Editor's note: This story contains a correction. The chair of the council of lobstermen that represents the harvesting zone that surrounds Mount Desert Island is David Horner, not David Borden.