The Maine lobster industry will have to drastically change how it operates to comply with a federal mandate to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, and some worry that the new fishing methods will make their jobs less profitable and more dangerous.

The state Department of Marine Resources has until September to come up with a way that it can cut the number of buoy lines in the Gulf of Maine by 50 percent. Federal regulators say that’s what it will take to reduce the risk of fatal entanglement enough for the species to survive.

Scientists estimate only 411 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when its population bottomed out at 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but low calving rates, ship strikes and fishing line entanglements have sent its numbers tumbling, yet again.

But many in Maine’s $485 million industry worry it is the lobsterman who will face extinction if federal officials insist on such a deep cut in buoy lines, forcing the state to choose which kind of lobsterman will survive – small inshore operators or high-volume lobstermen who fish in deeper waters.

Jason Joyce, a Swans Island lobsterman, worries there is no way to satisfy the federal mandate that won’t drive at least some of Maine’s 4,500 commercial lobstermen out of business in two years, when these new whale protection regulations are expected to take effect.

“I think the landscape is changing faster than we will be able to adapt as a fleet,” said Joyce, a member of the Lobster Advisory Council that represents Franklin to Frenchboro. “This fishery will look a lot different in three years, and I’m not sure if any of it will be for the betterment of anyone or any whales.”

This week the state will start asking fishermen to consider which concessions would be least painful: give up as many as half of their lobster traps, increase the number of traps that must be fished on every buoy line, shut down the inshore fishery for a few months, or a little bit of all three.

To reduce the number of vertical lines that could entangle a whale, the industry must decide if it would rather fish fewer traps overall, which could hurt bigger operators that rely on volume to meet their bottom line, or put more traps on each buoy line, which smaller operators say is dangerous for them.

Seth Walker of Harpswell said forcing him to fish too many traps on each string may protect a whale but would put the crew of his 36-foot lobster boat at risk. All those traps add weight, and in the rough waters of late fall it would put too much rope, water and ice on his small deck to safely fish.

“I don’t think it’s fair to have guys fishing out in federal waters go to longer strands,” Walker said. “You’re talking 15s, 20s, 30s and 40s? You’re going to push a lot of guys out.”

Or they could close the inshore fishery for a few months over the winter, when the bulk of the industry is dormant and those who are still fishing are setting their traps in deeper waters, so they would not have to give up as many traps or fish as many traps on each buoy line during the warmer months.

Jacob Thompson, a Vinalhaven lobsterman who is president of the local lobstering council in the part of Maine with the highest landings, said he thinks fishermen there would rather sit out April and May than give up any traps. “I’d be laughed out of the room” if he proposed trap cuts, he said.

Some see a winter closure as a way to ease the pain of a severe trap reduction, from 800 to as few as 400, and preserve the tradition of fishing two traps on a single buoy line, the way some of Maine has lobstered for generations. But others see any closure at all, even during winter, as a symbolic defeat.

If you close a fishery or give up traps, they never come back, said Laurin Brooks, a Lyman lobsterman.

“We have a tough choice to make,” Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said after presenting his alternatives to the Lobster Advisory Council last week. “Not a good choice, I know, but if we do not make it, the feds will make it for us, and frankly I don’t know anybody who thinks that would be a good idea.”

NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL

But it’s not easy in a fishery known for its diversity.

Some lobstermen prefer to fish single traps at the end of a buoy line, while others will run as many as 40 traps on a weighted ground line linked to the surface with one or two buoy lines. The choice depends on personal taste, shipping traffic, seabed geography and the size of the lobster boat and crew.

But Keliher said creating a region-by-region whale solution is not possible given the federal regulators’ September deadline. A statewide solution that recognizes fleet diversity by creating different rules for fishermen based on the distance they fish from shore is the best approach, he said.

However, after the final rules are enacted, local zone councils could use their authority to make changes, Keliher said – so long as the rules were more conservative than the state regulation, giving up even more traps than others in the state, fishing even longer trawls or closing down for even longer periods of time.

The bulk of Maine’s lobster fleet fishes within state waters, stretching from the beach and even up in the bays out to the 3-mile mark. A smaller group has a federal license to fish in deeper waters, as far out as 12 miles to sea. A small fraction fish in the deepest offshore waters beyond the 12-mile mark.

Generally, inshore fisherman who often operate a smaller boat, sometimes with no crew at all, are more amenable to a trap reduction if it means they can keep fishing a smaller string of traps. Those who work the deep waters in big boats, with a big crew, say they need every one of their 800 traps to pay their bills.

To keep all 800 traps and still meet the federal whale mandate, DMR estimates that inshore lobstermen would have to fish at least four traps on every string of their gear. The smallest string that could be set in nearshore waters would be 20. Offshore, Maine lobstermen would have to set 40-trap strings.

Under this “trawling up” scenario, the days of fishing a single trap – or even two or three – on a single buoy line would be all but over, relegated to vintage postcards, wistful Wyeth paintings and the skiff or rowboat zone found in the shallowest of waters less than a quarter-mile from shore.

SAFETY, COST CONCERNS

Dave Cousens, a veteran South Thomaston lobsterman who lived through federally imposed right whale protections as the retired president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, opposes any plan to require the fleet to trawl up, for both safety and efficiency reasons.

Dave Cousens, the retired president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, opposes any plan to require the fleet to trawl up, for both safety and efficiency reasons. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A lot of Maine fishermen don’t have big enough boats or enough crew to safely handle big trawls, he said.

“Safety is the biggest thing,” Cousens said. “A lot of people aren’t equipped to do 40-trap trawls offshore. You don’t want a bunch of funerals to go to.”

Fishing long traps in certain areas is inefficient, too, Cousens said. Given its topography, only two traps out of a so-called triple or quad would hit a good lobster spot in midcoast Maine, he said. The other one or two traps would sit empty on the muddy bottom, a waste of time, traps and lobster bait.

SEEKING SOLUTIONS

The agency will present these options and possibly more this month to the state’s seven lobster fishing councils. It will hold a second round of meetings in August to determine which options enjoy the most industry support. Keliher must submit his plan to federal regulators in September.

Informational sessions will be held Tuesday in Trenton, Thursday in Deer Isle, June 10 in Kennebunk, June 13 in Wiscasset, June 18 in East Machias, June 20 in Camden and June 27 in Freeport. Meeting locations will be published on the DMR website. All meetings will begin at 6 p.m.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is urging all commercial lobstermen to attend, said Kristan Porter, the trade group’s president. The veteran lobster and scallop fisherman out of Cutler fishes mostly 15 and 20-trap traps off his 42-foot boat in federal waters between 3 and 12 miles out.

Although he fishes longer trawls, Porter said he doesn’t think even he could fish 40-trap trawls safely.

The MLA will take no position on the scenarios that DMR is rolling out to the industry this week, Porter said. It may take a position in August, after fishermen have weighed in and suggested ideas of their own. But for now, MLA’s only goal is to make sure that all fishermen are treated equally, he said.

“We’re past the point of arguing that we don’t have to do anything,” Porter said. “Everyone has to realize that the industry has to come together and figure out a solution so that all the fisherman – the small guys and the trawl guys, the inshore and the offshore, from west to east – can survive all this and keep fishing.”

But in times like these, with lobster bait prices rising and fishermen feeling pressured to buy even bigger boats to follow their prey into deeper waters, it’s hard to put aside your own pocketbook concerns, Porter said – especially when Maine has already adopted whale-friendly rope rules, just a few years ago.

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 entanglements, such as ropeless fishing or area closures.

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.

If approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Maine would have to adopt the federal rule into its own state laws. Federal rulemaking usually takes one to two years, although environmental groups say they will ask for the work to be sped up due to the precarious nature of the right whale’s situation.