Lobster fishing has never been an easy way to make a living. Any economic endeavor that relies on natural forces and harvesting natural resources carries risk and uncertainties. I first heard of these risks last year when I was campaigning, going door to door. Lobstermen shared stories with me about weather, the environment, and the costs of gear changes. As a member of the Marine Resources Committee in the Legislature, I experienced this firsthand from the hardworking men and women working in the industry.
The biggest threat to the Maine lobster industry comes with news of the devastating right whale deaths in Canada this year. With only about 400 right whales left on earth, they are under the jurisdiction of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, both of which are concerned about reducing whale mortality from human causes, including fishing-gear entanglement and ship strikes. What emerged this summer was an order from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for Maine to develop a plan to reduce risk to right whales by 60%.
Before identifying possible methods of risk reduction, it’s important to recognize that Maine lobster fishermen have been reducing risk to right whales for over 20 years. They’ve already replaced floating groundlines with rope that sinks and added more traps to each line, resulting in a reduction of 30,000 miles of rope in the water. In addition, they invested in weak links below the buoys to break if whales encounter gear, and gear marking to identify it if that gear shows up on a right whale entanglement.
Some of these measures have brought risk to fishermen, such as sinking groundline; it wears out more quickly as it drags across a rocky bottom, and its kinks and chafes make it dangerous on board the boat. Additionally, connecting more traps to a buoy line carries risks to smaller boats that can’t carry the increased load or effectively deal with the extra line on deck. As one fisherman told me, “Longer trawls means more rope underfoot and some crews would have to handset gear. There are too many things going on at once to be safe.”
To comply with NOAA’s recent order, the Maine Department of Marine Resources proposed a 50% reduction in vertical lines, and additional “weak links” in the lobster gear that is set in federal waters. Removal of that amount of rope from the water would require adding more traps to each buoy line and possible trap reductions. Also, fishermen will be required to expand the marking of their gear. Commissioner Patrick Keliher and many DMR staffers then visited every lobster zone council in the state to meet with the lobster industry to discuss these plans. Maine waters are divided into seven lobster management zones.
As a legislator for House District 53, I represent two lobster zones. Zone F is roughly Cape Elizabeth to Small Point in Phippsburg, and Zone E covers Small Point east to Pemaquid. When I attended the Zone F meeting last month, I heard frustration from DMR staff as well as lobstermen who attended.
The major concern I heard was twofold. First, more gear attached to one line means even more risk to lobstermen, especially for smaller boats. Second, the lobstermen were clear that they do not want to harm right whales. When news came to us that a sixth right whale had been found in Canada during that meeting, no one cheered. No one is rooting for extinction.
The major takeaway, however, was the lack of evidence that Maine gear has been responsible for right whale entanglements. Consequently, Maine’s unique coastline makes a “one size fits all” risk-reduction plan impractical and of limited use. Also, with the Gulf of Maine’s rapidly rising temperatures, right whales seem to be heading into new territory to look for food. It wasn’t clear what would happen if, after the new rules are in place, there was no Maine gear showing up on right whales.
Recently, Gov. Janet Mills cited this lack of data in a statement that called the proposed regulations “unfair, unreasonable, and unwarranted” and promised a vigorous defense of Maine’s lobster industry. Commissioner Keliher agreed. As a result, DMR staff will be developing a plan this summer “based on the risk as we see it,” said Keliher, and meeting with each zone council again in August. Keliher expects a final plan to be submitted to NOAA by early October.
Final message: If you’re a lobster fisherman, go to your zone council meeting in August so DMR can hear your feedback. This matters to all of us. We can save our industry and also protect marine resources.
The diversity of Maine’s lobster industry is important to all of us. We all benefit from vessels small and large, and from lobstering activities onshore, near shore, and offshore. Our regional differences bring a variety of practices that enrich us all.
(Rep. Allison Hepler, D-Woolwich, represents Arrowsic, Dresden, Georgetown, Phippsburg, part of Richmond, and Woolwich. She sits on the Marine Resources Committee.)