Maine Lobstermen Dismayed By Fed's Push For More Gear Changes To Protect Endangered Whale

Feb 14, 2020

Maine's top fisheries regulator is telling his federal counterparts the state's lobster fleet deserves more credit for its efforts to reduce the risk of fishing gear entanglements with the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher revealed this week that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told him that Maine's proposed gear changes, including a reduced number of  vertical ropes in offshore waters, are insufficient.  

In a letter sent Wednesday, Keliher tells NOAA that it is overlooking other whale protection measures that the state has taken in the past and is proposing for the future. "It needs to be taken into consideration: it's not part of any calculations they have on the books right now," he says.

Keliher met last night with the state Lobster Advisory Council, which includes fishermen from each of the state's seven lobster management zones.

He says Maine should get credit for replacing floating rope lines that pose a big hazard for the whales with safer, sinking lines, and for Maine's proposal to require inshore boats to weave weak, breakaway links into their lines.

But Keliher is getting some pushback from lobstermen who say they are being asked to make costly investments in gear that could make life at sea more dangerous. All that, they say, while there is no hard evidence that their gear has contributed to the whale population's decline to around 400.

David Sullivan, a spokesman for Lobster 207, a union that represents some lobstermen in Maine, criticized Keliher for waiting a month before revealing that NOAA had sent him its letter saying that Maine's proposals fell short.

"We just went through a whole month of zone council meetings and none of this was brought up where fishermen could have weighed in on it," Sullivan says. "Instead, now everybody is going to wade in on Facebook and we're going to have to listen to it all day on Facebook every day for the next month. But we had the opportunity when we were bringing everybody together up and down the coast of Maine to talk about it."

Keliher says the department wanted to analyze the federal letter carefully and formulate a response before asking lobstermen to consider any new actions. He also says that if Maine does not work with NOAA, it could face new federal trap limits, or lobster fishery closures.

He also says that while NOAA isn't expected to finalize its proposals before July, pending federal court cases could force action sooner.

Originally published Feb. 13, 2020 at 7:01 a.m. ET.