The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is imposing a new five-trap limit for lobster trawlers in a restricted area around Mt. Desert Rock — about 6 miles off Frenchboro. Gear conflicts are growing common in the area, as smaller and larger boats compete for access to fertile lobster habitat.
Lobstermen in management Zone B, which includes Mt. Desert Rock, voted for the limit earlier this year, a limit that they say is in keeping with their longtime fishing traditions. They were responding to increased conflicts with bigger boats, many from other zones, fishing 15 traps and more on a single line.
"It's pitting one group of fishermen against another,” says Patrick Keliher, DMR's Commissioner.
Keliher says large lobster trawlers based in neighboring management zones — particularly Zone C to the south and west — are venturing into far offshore waters, in Zone B.
"You have more effort in [Zone] C, and that effort needs a place to go, and so they are moving into other areas,” Keliher says. “That creates a trap-density problem and as soon as you have a trap-density problem you have social problems. And those sometimes lead to enforcement problems."
In testimony on the new rule, one fisherman reported an emerging trap war, with gear being cut and fights breaking out.
Lobsterman David Horner, chair of the Zone B Council, says he hasn't heard reports of such extremes, but says that tensions have been rising.
"I mean the fishermen of this area do not want trawls. And that's all we've done,” Horner says.
He adds that that some big trawlers do have a habit of running over smaller boats' gear.
"You run a 20-trap trawl off on top of somebody's triple or five, and there's no way to get out from under it,” says Horner. “And then when you find yours in a ball half a mile away and get it straightened out, the last thing you're going to do is go near it again. So it's basically a way of bullying guys out of the position."
But captains of bigger boats say they are feeling bullied by the fast-rising number of cruise ships heading in and out of Bar Harbor. Sinking bigger, double-ended lines with more traps, they say, reduces their exposure to devastating gear loss from the cruisers.
And it's not just fishermen based outside the zone saying that. Steve Philbrook fishes out of Islesford in the Cranberry Isles, in Zone B.
"I believe it's going to be 180 cruise ships coming into Bar Harbor this year,” says Philbrook. “And they traverse that area at the very time of year that we are out there for our fall run of lobsters.”
And Philbrook says the measure won't make a dent in the growing fleet of trawlers coming in from other zones. They may stay away from Mr. Desert Rock, he says, but they'll still fish the rest of Zone B.
"The majority of Zone B fishermen think this is going to correct the issue, and I don't think it's going to do a thing," he says.
DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher says he is not happy with the situation, but that state statute forced his response to the Zone B vote. It goes into effect in October, but he's put a sunset on the new provision for December of next year. Keliher says he will seek a compromise that could include narrowing the five-trap zone slightly to allow bigger trawlers more access to deep water on the southerly side of Mt. Desert Rock.
Updated 3:45 p.m.