Maine Officials Propose New Rules To Protect Right Whales, Minimize Risks To Lobster Industry

Oct 17, 2019

Maine's Marine Resources commissioner is proposing new lobstering rules that he says will protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale from extinction while minimizing economic and safety risks for fishermen. The state plan marks a significant departure from a federal proposal.

The fed's proposed rule would require Maine's lobstermen to remove from the water half of the vertical lines they use for hauling and securing their traps. That's to reduce the risk of entanglement and injury or death for any of the right whales left on the planet, now estimated to be fewer than 400.

 

The state's Department of Marine Resources initially signed on to that proposal. But after considerable pushback from lobstermen and a new risk assessment, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher says the new rules should be better targeted to the actual likelihood that whales might be present in any given area of the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery.

"We are assuming that whales are everywhere, but we are putting a different level of risk inshore versus offshore," Keliher says.

Three miles and more offshore, the DMR strategy would require more and more lobster traps per line the farther a boat is from the coastline, thus reducing the number of vertical lines in the deepest waters. That's where right whales, Keliher says, are more likely to be passing through in pursuit of their forage food, a tiny crustacean of a class known as copepods.

It's still a less aggressive plan for "trawling up," as it's called, than proposed by the feds. And inshore, Keliher adds, Maine's lobster fleet should maintain an existing exemption from most federal gear rules, with a proviso that trap-rope should be rigged with "weak links" to allow stray whales that may encounter them to break free.

"The exemption line is kind of the cornerstone of the proposal,” Keliher says. “It is based in science, it's already in existing federal rules. It deals with both the oceanographic features within the Gulf of Maine as well as copepod densities within the Gulf of Maine, and it's the boundary for critical habitat."

Almost two-thirds of Maine's state-licensed lobster fleet works inside that roughly three-mile exemption line, which also bulges in some areas, such as the mid-coast, to encompass offshore islands. The proposal is getting some initial support from Maine lobstermen.

"What they came up with makes a lot more sense to me than anything I've seen thus far," says David Tarr.

Tarr fishes 800 traps out of Brooklin, Maine. He says the federal proposal to remove 50 percent of their rope from the water would be a devastating hardship for lobstermen who are already being buffeted this year by high bait prices and an apparent decline in the harvest. And he says the most extreme federal proposals for "trawling up" to as many as 40 traps per line could pose a severe safety risk for many boats that are simply too small to handle it.

"My safety concerns trump the economic concerns because I really feel like if those rules were implemented the way they said people would lose their lives, at least some, it would happen."

The state proposal is being met with some dismay among conservationists who had also signed on to the original proposal for more robust gear changes with no exemption zone.

"We're very disappointed. We don't think the plan looks like it goes far enough to protect right whales from entanglement,” says Emily Green, a Maine-based lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation.

"At least eight whales were killed this year, and there were at least three deaths in 2018 due to entanglement in U.S. waters. So we need to reduce the risk of entanglement in fishing gear if we are going to bring this species back from the brink of extinction."

CLF and other conservation groups are suing the federal government for quicker action to protect the whales under the Endangered Species Act and other law. DMR Commissioner Keliher insists the state plan relies on the "best available science" required by those statutes, and he says the agency is still working to compile the data it has collected into a risk analysis, ordered by Gov. Janet Mills.

Keliher plans on meeting with lobstermen starting next month, before finalizing a plan to submit to the feds. Federal officials declined comment.

Originally posted 1:00p.m. Oct. 16, 2019