Chebeague Island lobsterman Alex Todd says he welcomes rules to prevent whales from becoming tangled in his fishing gear.

But he is skeptical of what he sees as the usual heavy-handed federal regulatory approach to enacting them.

“What they come up with doesn’t apply in certain areas, but they jam it down our throats,” Todd said.

Todd and the rest of the state’s 4,300 active lobster fishermen could be affected by new rules under development that will dictate what kind of ropes they may use while fishing.

While the Maine lobster industry is known for self-regulation and environmentally sustainable practices, it also poses one of the biggest threats to endangered whale species — which can become entangled in the thousands of miles of ropes used by the industry to trap lobsters, according to federal regulators.

Two years ago, lobstermen were required to make a costly switch in their ground lines — those linking traps to one another — from floating rope to lines that sink to the ocean bottom. Now lobstermen are facing more rule changes, this time concerning their vertical lines, the ropes that connect the traps to their lobster buoys on the surface.

At a series of four meetings from Machias to Portland this week, regulators will seek practical solutions from the public. The meetings will continue along the entire Atlantic coast through the summer.

While Maine lobstermen say they are ready to help protect whales, they are skeptical of what they call the one-size-fits-all federal regulatory process.

“In their minds they can’t see the problem because they don’t interact with the species that much,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

At issue is the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and other endangered large whale species, such as humpback and fin whales, whose populations have yet to rebound from overhunting decades ago. Ship strikes and gear entanglements are now the major cause of untimely death for right whales. It’s a species that’s on the verge of extinction, with a surviving population estimated at only 300 to 400.

After years of discussion on how to protect endangered whales, new rules were adopted in 2006 and 2007. Some of the rules set speed limits in right whale habitat, and others regulated the fishing gear used by gillnetters and trap fisheries, such as crabs and lobsters, up and down the Atlantic coast.

The rules spawned a new Maine industry that recycles the old rope previously used for traps into floor mats and other products. However, the rules also imposed another painful expense on Maine fishermen, who were already reeling from escalating fuel prices and a drop in demand as the recession hit.

By some estimates, half of Maine’s lobstermen were affected by the rules requiring the use of sinking ground ropes when fishing more than three miles offshore.

The Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, an agency established by the industry to promote the health and sustainability of the fishery, collected more than 2 million pounds of floating ground rope, paying out $2.8 million to about 2,000 participants in a federally-funded buyback program.

But that didn’t come close to covering the costs, McCarron said. Federal regulators estimate the new gear requirements are costing lobstermen $4,300 a year on average.

The sinking rope is more expensive than the floating type, and Maine fishermen complain that they must replace it more frequently than their counterparts who use it in areas where the sea bottom is sandy. The force of Maine’s tidal currents and its rocky ocean bottom abrade the sinking rope, they say.

The rope also poses safety hazards because it tends to wrap around traps and boulders, fishermen say.

“If the rope breaks, everything flies. We have had somebody get their hand stuck in the rope and a thumb was ripped off,” McCarron said.

But the biggest complaint is that the Gulf of Maine is not critical habitat for right whales, which are the main focus of efforts to reduce the risk of entanglements. Many Maine lobstermen say they doubt they are causing the entanglements.

“Personally, I don’t see any right whales,” said Todd, the Chebeague Island lobsterman who moves his traps beyond the three-mile limit into the Gulf of Maine during the winter, but not as far out as right whales are typically found, he said.

Right whales migrate up and down the New England coast to feed in the Bay of Fundy and off Cape Cod and to calve in Georgia and Florida. Only a small number spend time in the Gulf of Maine — in Jordan Basin, 50 miles off the Maine coast.

“Way off the shore and not where a lobsterman spends time in the winter,” McCarron said.

So far, there is no evidence that sinking gear has resulted in fewer entanglements, said David Gouveia, marine mammal program coordinator at the National Fisheries Marine Service, which is responsible for drawing up the gear regulations. For the past decade, the number of reported entanglements has ranged from 20 to 30 annually. So far this year, there have been 14.

There is much that scientists do not know about whale entanglements, such as where they originate, how many whales die as a result and how many manage to untangle themselves without human help.

A number of research efforts are under way in the Gulf of Maine in order to better understand gear entanglements. This summer, the Maine Department of Marine Resources is working with the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation and midcoast fishermen to determine whether entanglements would be reduced by using multiple traps on one buoy rather than one trap per buoy. Multiple traps per buoy means fewer verticle lines.

“We want to target as much as possible by location and by season so we don’t have that broad-based” impact on lobstermen that resulted from the first round of gear changes, said Erin Summers, a scientist at the Department of Marine Resources.

Federal regulators say that unlike the last time around, they are trying to fine-tune the next set of gear changes to areas where a large number of endangered whales are likely to encounter fishing gear.

Gouveia said his agency will consider all good ideas to prevent more gear entanglements on vertical lines.

The agency will continue to accept ideas and comments through Sept. 30 and its Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team will consider proposals late this fall. Final regulations are expected to be adopted in 2014.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]

 


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