Maine’s plan to protect the endangered right whale from getting entangled in lobster gear is not likely to affect the bulk of the state’s fleet.

The Department of Marine Resources is proposing to eliminate 25 percent of the surface-to-seabed buoy lines set by state lobstermen in federal waters by requiring the fishermen to add more traps to each buoy line, a practice known as trawling up, as they move farther away from shore.

“Our goal was to develop a plan that was protective of right whales, but is also protective of the economic prosperity of Maine fishermen, and more importantly, for their safety,” said Commissioner Pat Keliher, who manages the state’s $485 million lobster industry. “We can do that by addressing the risk where it actually occurs.”

The state couldn’t say how many buoy lines – the lines whales are most likely to get tangled in – would be removed under this plan because the number of traps placed in federal waters changes from month to month as the lobsters move in and offshore when shedding and regrowing their shells.

But the bulk of Maine’s 5,000 state licensed commercial lobstermen, or about 3,800 of them, fish inside state waters, and won’t be impacted by the state’s proposed whale protection plan, according to the state. About 1,200 have federal permits to fish in offshore waters, and most don’t fish there all year.

There also are other requirements, such as requiring lobstermen to fish with rope that would break if a right whale were to get entangled, and additional reporting and gear marking requirements, but at its heart, this plan achieves its greatest whale protections through trawling up in offshore waters.

Some environmental groups say they need more information about the state’s plan before they decide if they could support it, such as how much line would actually be removed by the state’s tiered trawling-up plan, but others raised concerns that it did not go far enough to protect the whale.

“It’s not clear that Maine’s draft plan will adequately reduce the risk of right whale entanglements,” said Erica Fuller, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation. “Maine is long overdue to mark fishing gear and require 100 percent reporting, but those measures do nothing to reduce risk.”

Jane Davenport, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife that sits on the federal right whale task force, said the Maine plan was long on bullet points but short on substance.

Weak points in vertical lines have never been field-tested to confirm they actually protect whales, said Davenport, whose group is one of three conservation organizations suing the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to force it to protect the right whale.

Gear marking, harvester reporting, and vessel monitoring – while necessary and long overdue – will not result in the immediate risk reduction that the whale desperately needs to prevent its extinction, Davenport said.

“Maine is on the right track in proposing a reduction in lines, but the DMR doesn’t go nearly far enough to provide the statutory level of protection needed to save these whales,” Davenport said. “This is no time for half measures if we are to save the right whale from oblivion.”

But the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the state’s biggest industry group, thinks the state plan is a big improvement over the department’s previous proposals to protect the whale. Those proposals, intended to meet a federal goal to reduce whale injury and death by 60 percent, met with stiff industry opposition.

“MLA is pleased that the state has heard and responded to lobstermen’s concerns over safety, economic and operational hardships,” director Patrice McCarron said. “MLA is encouraged the state’s plan will not require lobstermen fishing in exempt waters to trawl up because whales are so rare in these waters.”

DIFFERENT ZONES

The 3-mile mark that divides state and federal waters is significant because it shadows the so-called federal exemption line, an invisible nautical boundary that divides the Gulf of Maine into regions where federal whale protections must be implemented (outside the line) and where they don’t (inside the line).

Maine lobstermen who fish outside the exemption line can’t use floating rope, but must instead fish with sinking ground line in between their traps. Those who fish inside the exemption line can use it – although many don’t – because right whales are rarely sighted in the state-licensed waters.

The trawling-up requirements increase as a lobsterman sets traps in deeper waters farther from shore, as seen as here:

• Three traps per buoy line in areas where there is a gap between exemption line and 3-mile mark
• Four traps per single-buoy trawl or eight traps per two-buoy trawl between 3 and 6 miles
• 16 traps per two-buoy trawl between 6 miles and 12 miles
• 24 traps per two-buoy trawl from 12 miles to the federal boundary, which varies across the state

And Keliher said he remains open to working with any lobsterman who fishes in trawling-up waters and can’t safely set or retrieve trawls with the number of traps called for in the proposal. Safety first, Keliher said. Some vessels are simply too small to safely stack that many traps, or store that much rope, on deck.

The plan provides some flexibility in meeting these requirements, allowing the state’s seven area lobster fishing zones to consider adopting other rules if they reduce the risk to whales by the same level as the state plan. Keliher said such “conservation equivalencies” are used in other fisheries.

Keliher said this proposal focuses the whale protections on where right whales are most likely to be, and spares the large section of the Maine fleet that sets traps outside of the whale’s recently changing habitat. The whales follow the copepods it likes to eat, and the copepods are moving into deeper waters.

Scientists believe about 400 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when its population bottomed out at 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but low calving rates, ship strikes and entanglements, especially in Canada, have sent its numbers tumbling.

Regulators claim that even one right death whale a year could doom the species to extinction.

UNVEILING THE PLAN TO FISHERMEN

The agency will present its proposal to the industry at three meetings in November before it submits the plan to NOAA. The agency is working on federal regulations to protect right whales from fishing entanglements.

A group appointed by the agency to come up with a plan to protect the right whale – the Take Reduction Team – had proposed a plan that would cut the risk of serious injury or fatality for the right whale by 60 percent by reducing Maine buoy lines in state and federal waters by 50 percent and using weak ropes.

DMR officials and several Maine lobstermen sat on that team, which was made up of whale researchers, academics, and federal and New England fishing regulators. The group had backed the team’s proposal, but Maine withdrew support after beginning to doubt some of the data used to come up with the proposal.

The industry opposed the team’s proposal, saying the aggressive trawling up required to cut the number of buoy lines by 50 percent put fishing crews and their bottom lines at risk. Fishermen and DMR chafed at the idea of changing fishing practices in areas where right whales are no longer found.

Keliher could not say exactly how much the state’s plan would reduce the risk of serious injury or fatality for right whales – he said the team’s tool used to calculate risk has changed since the team used it in April – but said it “comes pretty darn close” to the team’s proposed 60 percent risk reduction.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.