Lobster fishermen off the Maine coast must begin to remove gear from a new protected area intended to preserve the safety of a group of endangered whales, the federal government said this week.

New rules to protect the North Atlantic right whales make roughly 950 square miles in the Gulf of Maine essentially off limits to lobster fishing each year from October through the end of January. A federal appeals court ruled this week that the ban is enforceable, despite legal challenges from the lobster industry.

Virginia Olsen, spokeswoman for the Maine Lobstering Union, said the mandate to immediately to remove gear is unnecessary, and that regulators should have instead relied on a “trigger mechanism,” such as if right whales were spotted in the area.

“Most of our coastal communities are still vital because of the lobster industry,” Olsen said via email. “They have put themselves in harm’s way to offer protections to the (whales) repeatedly, and they will again to remove their gear without (the whales) being present. What is so disappointing is that we have been given the same timeframe a trigger mechanism would have been given and that is all we asked for. So why can’t we have a trigger?”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday that lobster and crab fishermen in the area must remove their gear and may not set new gear. The agency said it expects the gear to be removed within two weeks.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said meeting the two-week deadline will be difficult.

“Wind and weather already complicate fishing this time of year, and having to pile traps on the back of the boat can be very dangerous,” McCarron said via email. “Lobstermen will have to work around good weather windows to safely load their vessels to move gear. And they have to go back to their charts and try to find places to relocate gear. This is not a simple task, especially with so many vessels needing to shift at once. ”

The removal of the gear in late fall presents a safety concern, Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said this week, adding that the federal government and the courts have an obligation to take fishermen’s safety into consideration when they make such decisions.

Keliher also said the state will continue its legal challenge to NOAA’s “biological opinion” that led to the new fishing rules.

Federal fisheries officials released the new set of restrictions on the lobster fishery earlier this year in an effort to protect the whales, which now number fewer than 340, from deadly entanglements in fishing gear.

OTHER RULES BEGIN IN MAY

Most of the new rules, which include state-specific gear marking and weak points in rope to allow entangled whales to break free, won’t go into effect until May.

However, the October-to-January seasonal closure, which affects prime winter fishing grounds, was slated to go into effect almost immediately, with fishermen required to remove their gear from the area by Oct. 18.

But last month, in a lawsuit filed by the Maine Lobstering Union and other industry businesses, U.S. District Judge Lance E. Walker granted a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, halting the closure until the details and science behind it could be further scrutinized.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and a group of conservationists swiftly appealed to the U.S. District Court in Bangor, asking the court to permit the closure while it reviewed the preliminary injunction, citing new information that the right whale population had declined by another 10 percent last year, from 366 in 2019 to 336 in 2020.

The district court denied the motion, so the group moved for similar relief in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

Late Tuesday, the court granted the appeal, prompting backlash from the Maine lobster industry and Gov. Janet Mills, but celebration from conservation groups.

REMOVING GEAR DIFFICULT

In a news release issued Wednesday, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said it was extremely disappointed by the court’s reinstatement of the ban, and said it will create additional difficulties for the lobstermen who, after the initial ruling halted the closure, already committed to fishing in the area for this season.

“The massive closure will create economic hardship for too many Maine lobstermen who have already invested in gear, rigged up and are fishing in these productive waters,” it said.

Located about 30 miles offshore, the restricted area stretches from about Mount Desert Island down to eastern Casco Bay. Federal officials have estimated it will impact about 120 lobster harvesters out of Maine’s fleet of roughly 5,000 commercial fishermen. About 60 of the lobster fishers will be displaced by the closure and another 60 might be affected by the others relocating. Lobstermen say those figures understate the impact.

The late fall and winter months aren’t traditionally a busy time for Maine lobstermen, but for offshore fishermen, the colder temperatures mean harder shells and higher prices, making it a lucrative time of year.

The fisheries service estimates that the lobster harvesters who fish in the area may lose about 5 to 10 percent of their revenue, but lobstermen say that is a gross underestimate and that the true figure could be 50 percent or higher.

Ropeless fishing, a new technology that sends buoy lines to the surface using acoustic signals, will be allowed in the area but will require a special permit. Ropeless technology is still in the development stage and has not been tested on a commercial scale.

EDUCATION VS. ENFORCEMENT

Fishing industry officials have been frustrated by what they’ve described as a lack of clarity regarding how the closure will be enforced.

The stretch of ocean will be patrolled by Maine Marine Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard and the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement. According to Allison Ferreira, a spokesperson for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic region fisheries office, the area cannot be marked due to its location in open ocean, but fishermen are given the coordinates so they know where to avoid.

The agency has declined to answer any questions about possible penalties for violating the closure area because “that is subject to the circumstances surrounding the infraction.”

Generally speaking, though, “our law enforcement staff focus on education and outreach vs. violations,” Ferreira said in an email last month. “We want to ensure fishermen fully understand the rules before we go down the violation route.”

It’s unclear exactly which statutes might come into play for violating Maine’s closure, but the maximum penalties for violating the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act are $52,596 per violation, $29,596 per violation and $189,427 per violation, respectively.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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