Federal regulators have given Maine’s lobster industry its marching orders: Find a way to cut the number of surface-to-seabed fishing lines by 50 percent to help prevent the injury or death of even one of the endangered right whales that pass through the Gulf of Maine.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is allowing each lobstering state to develop its own plan to protect the whale, whose numbers have fallen to a little more than 400 in recent years. But it will be hard to find one way to make it work in Maine, where the $485 million-a-year fishery is known for its diversity.

“The devil will be in the details,” said state Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher.

Of the 4,500 people who lobster for a living along Maine’s coast, some fish with single traps at the end of each buoy line while others place multiple traps, from two or three to as many as 30, on a single weighted ground line, with both ends linked to the surface by a single buoy line.

Deciding how many traps to put on a trawl – the gear that connects a line of lobster traps – varies throughout each of the state’s seven lobster zones, depending on traditional fishing practices, shipping traffic, the geography of the ocean floor and the size of the lobster operation.

“There is too much variance along our coast from west to east, and inshore to offshore, to expect that one option will work best for 4,000-plus independent-minded commercial fishers,” said Josh Miller, a third generation Tenants Harbor lobsterman who is chairman of the Maine Lobster Advisory Council and sits on his local lobster council. “A one-size-fits-all approach will not work.”

It’s still too early to say what solution will work best for midcoast fishermen such as Miller. News of the federal directive is still working its way through the community. Miller said that he has a hard time imagining how he will be able to reduce the number of buoy lines that he uses by half.

Jeff Putnam, who fishes out of Chebeague Island and sits on his local lobster council and the advisory council, said it’s likely that each region will want to find its own solution. “We’re not all going to agree.”

In the summer, when he fishes in Casco Bay, Putnam puts eight traps on each trawl. When fishing near shore, most locals prefer to fish at least eight traps on a trawl because they can haul faster. When the fall arrives, and Putnam heads out to deeper waters, he fishes with as many as 20 traps on a single string.

Some lobstermen believe that trawling up is the answer to the right whale problem. Taken to extremes, imagine a single lobsterman fishing 800 single traps. That means 800 vertical lines in the water. To an environmentalist, that means 800 potential entanglement threats.

But if that same lobsterman fishes 20-trap trawls instead of singles, the number of vertical lines needed to mark and haul the same number of traps on longer strings decreases by 90 percent, or 80 surface-to-seabed lines that could potentially entangle a right whale.

“If we had to increase traps per trawl, inshore or offshore, I personally could make that work,” Putnam said. “Longer trawls are a far better option than less traps, or the illogical ropeless fishing brought up by people that don’t really understand our industry, or closed areas.”

But industry leaders know long trawls don’t work everywhere, or for everyone, especially smaller boats, which often lack the deck space and crew to safely set them. Longer trawls tend to work better in deeper waters, too, where it’s less crowded, where small boats can’t operate as safely as larger ones.

“We must be careful not to create incentives for lobstermen to transition into larger boats,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “If that’s in someone’s business plan, that’s fine. But we don’t want to create a situation where you must get bigger to survive.”

The captains of some smaller inshore boats might lean more toward lowering the number of traps that a lobsterman can fish as a way to reduce vertical lines. But captains of big lobster boats need the cash flow of fishing all 800 traps to pay higher operating costs.

Jason Joyce, a Swans Island lobsterman who represents his fishing zone on the state advisory council, worries that trawling up will put Maine’s traditional inshore and offshore day-boat lobster fleet in danger.

“Many of our license holders are getting older, and with expenses rising it may be necessary to reduce crew on the boat resulting in even more risk,” Joyce said. “Safety is paramount, and no human life is worth risking to decrease the possible interactions by 60 percent with a rarely if almost never seen whale in our waters.”

The different fishing styles can sometimes divide this highly opinionated industry. Those who prefer the trawling up to reducing trap limits are dubbed greedy, while those who argue lobstermen ought to fish smarter, not harder, are dismissed as lazy.

Now is the time for Maine lobstermen to overcome their differences, and come together, McCarron said.

“There are sound business decisions driving each line of thinking and each has its place,” McCarron said in the May edition of Landings, MLA’s newsletter. “The task for our industry is to listen and understand each other’s perspective rather than dismissing any ideas out of hand.”

Keliher must develop the state’s plan against a backdrop of industry frustration, regulatory uncertainty and a lawsuit filed by environmental groups that want to force the federal government to implement an even more aggressive plan to reduce right whale entanglements.

The industry and its state regulators have long claimed there is no data proving Maine lobstermen are to blame for the declining right whale population. While right whales can be spotted off the coast, and a few have even washed up here dead, no right whale death has ever been conclusively linked to Maine gear.

Keliher will be reaching out to each lobster fishing zone in June to discuss development of the statewide plan. He said he has not ruled out including specific measures to address local fishing practices. Maine will then present its plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service for inclusion in its proposed federal regulation.

Federal rulemaking usually takes one to two years, although environmental groups say they will ask that the work be sped up due to the precarious nature of the right whale’s situation. Regulators expect to hold public meetings at ports throughout the coast over the summer to solicit public input on the plan.

Other ideas for reducing entanglement threats include eliminating recreational lobstering and requiring students to go on a license wait list.

Reducing vertical fishing lines along right whale migration routes is only one part of the proposed plan.

Under federal pressure, Maine also agreed to use weak rope and other gear modifications beyond the 3-mile mark to make it easier for entangled whales to break free. It also will require state-specific marks on all Maine gear to help regulators identify gear when it is found on injured or dead whales.

Federal regulators say that doing all these things – halving the number of end lines, using weak rope and toppers – will lower the risk that Maine lobster gear will seriously hurt or kill a right whale by about 61.5 percent. The government’s total risk reduction target was at least 60 percent.

Joyce, the Swans Island lobsterman, worries the directive will put Maine lobstering families out of business and do absolutely nothing to help the right whales, which he believes are not being threatened by the Maine lobster industry at all.

He said he isn’t looking forward to the extra work, increased risk and expense that any of the right whale protections will inevitably bring.
“It could be hard for many in the fishery to remain profitable at the end of this process,” Joyce said. “This year is especially difficult with the herring quota being cut drastically, which likely will result in greater expenses to our small-business men and women. We are thousands of small businesses, with very few resources to fight these huge money-laden environmental organizations.”