Charles Kelley began fishing for lobster on Outer Schoodic Ridge about 20 years ago, preferring the solitude of deep waters to the crowded inshore fishery.

The Steuben resident and preacher was willing to sail two hours for the freedom to drop his 30-trap trawls anywhere he wanted along that ridge, which sits about 25 nautical miles southeast of Mount Desert Island. The area is more crowded now, and Kelley’s trawls are shorter, but in the winter the 54-year-old is still dropping most of his traps in these waters. He says he earns about 40 percent of his yearly profits here, too.

“It’s my bread and butter,” Kelley said of the ridge. “I really don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t fish there. Have to move someplace else, I guess, but that would just be taking bread off someone else’s table, from those I’ve known and worked beside all my life. It would cause untold hardship not just for me, but for all the fishermen up and down this stretch of coast, from Winter Harbor all the way to Jonesport.”

Kelley is worried that he could lose his winter fishing territory if interstate regulators decide to ban all fishing in a 31-square-mile area at the ridge and an 18-square-mile area southwest of Mount Desert Rock to protect deep-water coral gardens found in those waters. The rare, slow-growing gardens of sea whips, fans and pens provide essential habitat for cod, silver hake, pollock and larval redfish.

The New England Fishery Management Council voted last month to exempt lobstering from the coral fishing ban it is considering, but the proposal won’t be finalized until June. Until then, the council is holding a series of public hearings on the proposal, including one Thursday in Ellsworth. State officials hope lobstermen show up in large numbers to lobby the council to keep the lobster exemption in its final plan.

At its April meeting, regulators seemed swayed by testimony from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and lobstermen who have attended workshop meetings across the region outlining the economic impact of closing these areas to lobstermen. Maine estimates that 100 lobster boats from more than a dozen Down East ports land more than $4 million worth of lobster a year here.

What they don’t land is coral, Kelley said. In his 20 years, he said, he has not hauled up a single trap full of coral.

“And that’s the God’s honest truth,” said Kelley, pastor of the Unionville Church of God.

Regulators are weighing a fishing ban in an 18-square-mile area southwest of Mount Desert Rock to protect coral. Photo courtesy of the College of the Atlantic

He’s only seen two right whales on the ridge over that time, too. As much as the whales have inconvenienced lobstermen, with a possibility of entanglement prompting federal officials to require the use of breakaway rope and fewer vertical lines connecting trawls to surface buoys, the council was also wary of forcing lobster boats out of the coral zones and into nearby areas where right whales are known to frequent.

The council is looking at fishing bans in other proposed coral zones in the Gulf of Maine, including Jordan Basin and Lindenkohl Knoll, but they aren’t as popular with Maine fishermen. There could also be deep-water corals in other parts of the gulf that scientists do not know about yet. The council could always add areas, or change the protection measures, in the future if the need arises.

Cold-water coral communities remain relatively unexplored. University of Connecticut marine sciences professor Peter Auster has led two survey expeditions that used remotely operated underwater vehicles and cameras to photograph and sample the Gulf of Maine coral zones. Researchers have found evidence of the damage that fishing has inflicted on these habitats, including scarring on the ocean bottom from nets dragged along the basins.

While trawling may cause the most damage, lobster pots can get in the rocky crevices where coral thrives and crush the coral or rip it right off the rock.

“Is the footprint of lobster gear smaller than trawl gear? Sure, because traps are smaller,” Auster said last fall during an interview about the Mount Desert Rock and Schoodic Ridge corals. “But their small size also means they are set in places where trawl gear can’t go, the places where the coral still exists. These are the areas we’re trying to protect. Deep-sea corals are vulnerable. … If they get damaged, they’re not going to come back anytime soon.”

Some environmental groups have banded together to oppose the lobster exemption, among other aspects of the proposal, including the Conservation Law Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana and The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Heavy offshore trap gear … poses a threat to long-lived and vulnerable deep-sea coral communities,” they wrote in an April 11 letter. “Trap fisheries directly damage corals.”

John Bullard, regional administrator of the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has argued against the exemption, noting that sacrifices are required of everyone to protect the coral.

If the New England Fishery Management Council approves a coral protection plan, it would go to the National Marine Fisheries Service for final consideration, a process that would involve more public comment.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791- 6463 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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