DEER ISLE — In the heart of Maine’s lobster economy, fishermen told state regulators Thursday they could live with a federal mandate to cut the number of buoy lines in the Gulf of Maine by 50 percent to protect right whales – as long as the state let them decide how best to fish them.

Brian Tripp, a Sedgwick lobsterman, urged Maine to adopt a buoy line tagging system to help reduce the number of lines that link a fisherman’s buoys to his traps by 50 percent, which is what federal regulators say it will take to protect the endangered right whale from deadly entanglements.

Under current state law, most Maine fishermen have a right to fish up to 800 of these surface-to-seabed lines. To meet the federal risk reduction goal, Maine can issue each fisherman 400 buoy line tags, Tripp said – half the number they are allowed to have now.

Fishermen could live with that if they had the freedom to fish those 400 buoy lines how they want, he said.

“This one-size-fits-all-approach doesn’t work in a state like Maine,” Tripp said. “We’ve got guys who fish small boats, guys who fish large boats. Some who fish inshore, some who fish offshore. It’s no use acting like we’re all alike. Give us a number and let us all figure out a way to make it work for us.”

The idea came up Thursday evening at a state Department of Marine Resources hearing in Deer Isle to solicit industry opinion on a range of possible fishing regulation changes that would meet the federal mandate to reduce the number of buoy lines in the Gulf of Maine by 50 percent to protect right whales.

More than 150 people at the hearing listened to the benefits and drawbacks of scenarios that included trap reductions, changes in the number of traps attached to each buoy line, closing the inshore fishery during the winter months, or a little bit of all three.

After the hearing – the second one in the agency’s monthlong plan to present the right whale protections to each of Maine’s seven lobster fishing zones – Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher said he would look into the possibility of adopting a buoy line tagging system.

“It absolutely can be done,” Keliher said. “But it’s not going to be 400 tags, because the feds want us to reduce the current risk posed to right whales by 50 percent, and not everybody in Maine fishes 800 (buoy) lines now. We’ll crunch the numbers and see what the magic buoy line tag limit would be.”

Lobster is the economic engine that drives this part of the state, and the lobster landed here feeds not only this local fishing zone, in the waters of eastern Penobscot Bay off Stonington, Vinalhaven and Isle au Haut, but leads Maine for lobster landings and profits.

In 2018, Stonington boasted $59.6 million worth of landings, almost all of which was lobster, making it the most lucrative port in Maine. The No. 2 port? Vinalhaven, also located in this regional lobster zone, which landed $37.9 million. As a whole, this zone landed $116.5 million worth of lobster.

Many at Thursday’s hearing remained resistant to the idea that the Maine lobster industry should have to give up anything at all to protect an endangered whale that few who have spent their lives working on the ocean have ever seen. Some called out the department for failing to collect enough data to prove the industry poses no threat to right whales.

The 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 again sent its numbers tumbling.

But many in Maine’s $485 million lobster fishery 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.


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