MYSTIC, Connecticut — New England regulators have voted to allow lobster fishing in proposed deep-sea coral protection zones, including two heavily fished areas in Down East Maine.

The New England Fishery Management Council voted 14-1 Tuesday to ban most fishing in the canyons and plateaus where slow-growing, cold-water coral gardens flourish in the dark waters of the Gulf of Maine. But pleas from Maine lobster fishermen who say a trap ban in fertile gulf fishing grounds would cost them millions of dollars helped sway an initially resistant council to grant a lobstering exemption.

If approved at the council’s June meeting in Portland, the exemption would allow lobstering in coral protection zones on Mount Desert Rock and Outer Schoodic Ridge, where Maine officials believe state-based boats land about $4.2 million worth of lobster a year.

“The economics are compelling,” said Terry Stockwell, the council vice chairman and external affairs director for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “Maine wants protection for coral, but not at all costs. We need balance.”

The fishery management council had initially resisted any exemption for lobster traps, saying that even stationary traps can denude the ocean bottom and the rocky ledges of fragile cold-water coral.

Stockwell had sought a lobster gear exemption twice before and failed. But this week, at its spring meeting in Mystic, the council voted to permit stationary traps in coral protection zones, in part to protect Maine’s $1.6 billion-a-year lobster industry, as well as the endangered right whale population.

If lobstermen were pushed out of these coral zones, they would move their traps into waters frequented by right whales in the spring, increasing the risk of entanglement in vertical lines linking floating buoys to traps on the sea floor.

HOME TO LOBSTER, SENSITIVE CORAL

The council has spent two years developing regulations to protect the delicate coral gardens of sea whips, fans and pens found on the steep rock walls deep underwater in the northwest Atlantic Ocean.

The proposed Outer Schoodic Ridge coral zone is a 31-square-mile area that lies about 25 nautical miles southeast of Mount Desert Island. The terrain there looks like an underwater slot canyon, with depths ranging from roughly 350 feet to more than 800 feet. In dives over the past four years, researchers found soft corals such as sea fans and red trees on the short, steep vertical rock faces there, sometimes in dense thickets known as coral gardens.

The proposed Mount Desert Rock coral zone is an 18-square-mile area southwest of Mount Desert Rock, a small island that lies about 20 nautical miles south of Mount Desert Island. Depths range from about 330 feet to more than 650 feet. Researchers have surveyed this area a half-dozen times since 2002, finding both low-density coral habitats and coral gardens on the high slopes, as well as sea pen beds.

Researchers also have found evidence that fishing has damaged these coral habitats. Scarring has been found on the ocean bottom from trawler boats that drag their nets along the basins, denuding the bottom of most plant life. And lobster pots can get in the rocky crevices where coral gardens now thrive, crushing the coral or dislodging it from the rock.

These cold-water coral habitats are largely unexplored, but are believed to be increasingly rare, suffering from centuries of damage from fishing gear. They provide shelter, food and refuge to fish such as cod, silver hake and pollock.

But these zones are also home to lobster, one of the nation’s most lucrative fisheries.

The state Department of Marine Resources believes more than 100 lobster boats launch from at least 15 ports in Down East Maine to fish in the 49 square miles of ocean that make up the Mount Desert Rock and Outer Schoodic Ridge coral zones. The state’s overall lobster fleet includes about 6,000 commercial licenses.

Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher traveled to Connecticut to make the case for a lobster exemption, too, as did Patrick Shepard, a fisheries policy expert for the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries.

Maine Lobstermen’s Association Director Patrice McCarron has told the fishery management council that the possibility of being shut out of these two zones has “put the fear of God” into Maine lobstermen.

Lobstermen do all they can to avoid coral areas, which tend to be rocky, because the sunken lines required in these areas to avoid right whale entanglement mean ruined and sometimes lost gear if it snags, McCarron said.

EXEMPTION ‘NOT A DONE DEAL’

His testimony persuaded Connecticut council member Michael McKenzie. “Why would a lobsterman risk losing gear in a coral zone?” McKenzie said.

The history professor said he remains open to a lobster ban in the future, but for now, he prefers some coral protection to none. Trying to ban lobstering in coral areas could have caused the entire protection effort to fail, he said.

The proposed exemption is “far from a done deal,” said Stockwell, the marine resources external affairs director. Fishermen who would lose money if the coral zones are closed to lobstering need to speak up at two public hearings to be scheduled in Machias and Ellsworth in late May, he said.

Stockwell expects environmentalists to oppose the exemption.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at:

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