State officials are offering a final proposal to federal regulators for changes in the state's lobster fishery aimed at reducing the risk of entanglements for the endangered northern right whale. The new proposal makes some changes to a plan the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) floated in the fall, but it still may not satisfy lobstermen or conservation groups.
The state's 34-page — plus appendices — proposal is designed to create a more flexible set of gear requirements than an initial proposal from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which would broadly require Maine's fleet to remove half of the vertical trap-lines it places in the water.
"I've been saying this all along: a one-size-fits-all, statewide approach doesn't really work," says DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher.
Keliher says the state's plan, instead, would respond to the diverse ways that Maine lobstermen operate, depending on where they fish. And it is better aligned, he says, with findings that posit that the entanglement risk for whales is minimal closer to shore and increases at greater distances from the coast.
"What we're looking for now is the recognition from the federal agency to say 'we also understand that from east to west, from inshore to offshore, there are different oceanographic conditions and fishing practices and the diversity of fleet that also needs to be recognized," he says.
Within a roughly three-mile zone from the coast, most boats would be exempt from requirements to reduce the number of vertical lines they place in the water, although they will be required to place a single "weak link" in their lines that mature whales are able to break through.
Farther offshore, boats would be required to "trawl up" — that is, tie more traps to each rope-line, thus reducing the overall amount of rope in the water. The farther offshore, the more traps required per line, with those fishing 12 miles out needing at least 25 traps per line.
But Keliher says the state is no longer proposing that those boats, which fish at depth and in strong currents, put two weak links in their rope.
"We're proposing one weak point one-third of the way down the line, because that is the area where the longer trawls will be, and having additional weak points in the line does not work within that fishery in that deep water and it would put fishermen at risk,” he says. “That was the biggest change that we made."
Keliher says there is emerging evidence that weak links are more effective than previously thought. He is asking NOAA for greater flexibility in setting specific gear requirements from one of Maine's lobster fishing zones to the next, based on collaborative work with fishermen in each of those seven areas.
But it will likely be tough to get the industry on board. In the fall the Maine Lobstermen's Association (MLA) rejected the state's initial proposal, and MLA President Kristan Porter says that even though most of the lobster harvest is hauled from within that three-mile exemption line, the state's latest adjustments are unlikely to change minds.
"You're still doing too much for what we feel our share of the risk to right whales is,” says Porter. “And when you put some vessels with the amount of traps per trawl that they have, there's definitely some safety issues that need to be addressed."
Genevieve McDonald, a Stonington lobsterman and a state representative who sits on the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee, says the revised DMR plan is a step in the right direction, particularly because the agency is no longer considering an overall reduction in the number of traps fishermen would be allowed. But, she adds, it's the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, and conservationists whose opinions count now.
"Those are the heavyweights. So DMR really is putting together a plan at-task. This didn't originate from the state of Maine. The need to develop this plan originated from NMFS, with some motivation from the Conservation Law Foundation and the pending litigation."
The Conservation Law Foundation and several other groups are suing NOAA under the Endangered Species Act and other law for failing to protect the roughly 400 North Atlantic right whales left on the planet. In a statement CLF lawyer Erica Fuller calls Maine's latest proposal "disappointing", saying it under-estimates the risk that Maine lobster gear would still pose for entanglement injuries for adult whales, and worse for juveniles.
Amid all the controversy, there is one bright spot for Maine's lobster fishery: lobstermen such as Kristan Porter are reporting that while this year's haul will be smaller than recent record-breakers, prices are strong.
"That's going to make up some ground in the pocketbook."
In recent months, some wholesalers have been paying five or six dollars per pound at the dock, and occasionally even more.
Originally published Jan. 3, 2020 at 9:58 a.m. ET.