Lobster boats are docked at Widgery Wharf in Portland last week. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine lobstermen have had a lot to juggle this year, with hugely fluctuating bait bills and a dismal start to the season, but nothing has caused as much anxiety for Maine’s most valuable fishery as the changes coming to protect the endangered right whale.

“Right now, we’re all fishing hard, so it’s taking our mind off it some, but it feels like we’ve been waiting and worrying about what whales might do to us for so long now,” said Jake Thompson, a Vinalhaven lobsterman. “We can manage the rest of it, but whales? Everybody’s worried about whales.”

Lobstermen will have a chance to weigh in on Maine’s plan to protect the endangered right whale from buoy line entanglements at Maine Department of Marine Resources meetings in Ellsworth, Waldoboro and South Portland this week. The state’s final plan will go to federal regulators later this month.

The proposal would require lobstermen to add more traps to buoy lines set farther from shore, use rope that whales can break free from if entangled, report where and how they fish on each trip out, and mark their gear purple and green so it can be identified as Maine lobster gear if it is found on a whale.

Commissioner Pat Keliher estimates the proposal will reduce surface-to-seabed buoy lines that pose a threat to right whales by 25 percent, and, when added to the proposed weaker rope provisions, be “pretty darn close” to the 60 percent reduction in risk of serious whale injury or death that federal regulators want.

“This draft plan will not make everyone happy,” said Keliher, who has served as Maine’s top lobster regulator since 2011. “It provides legitimate protection to right whales in compliance with federal laws and, I believe, is an approach that can work for much of the industry.”

The state’s $485 million-a-year industry could use some good news. This year’s lobster landings are down 40 percent through the end of September, in part because of a late start to the season. Although not as bad as initially forecasted, bait prices are high because of slashed herring quotas.

Fishermen are hopeful that a steady price and increasing volume this fall will help them offset their bait bills, end the year in the black, and bolster their spirits as federal regulators begin writing regulations to reduce the number of right whales that suffer significant injury or die from entanglement in fishing gear.

EVOLVING PLAN

This DMR whale protection proposal is very different from the ones Keliher presented to the fleet in June. At that time, Keliher was still trying to achieve a 50 percent reduction in buoy lines – a number called for back in April by a right whale task force that includes Keliher and other Mainers as members.

To achieve that reduction, Keliher was asking lobstermen to consider different trawling-up scenarios, which means reducing buoy lines by requiring more traps on every one, along with the possibility of reducing how many traps each fisherman could set. There was even talk of seasonal closures.

But lobstermen balked at such drastic changes, which they argued would put lobstermen who would have to fish buoy lines with as many as 40 traps attached in physical danger. Lobstermen also pushed DMR to review the science behind the task force’s 50 percent buoy line reduction, arguing it was faulty.

Upon review, DMR and Maine Gov. Janet Mills questioned the task force’s data, and its assumptions, and it withdrew its support for the task force plan while pledging to continue working with the group’s researchers, regulators and conservation groups to reduce the industry’s “real risk” to right whales.

Scientists believe about 400 right whales remain. The death rate in recent years has been high, with 30 right whales known to have died in U.S. and Canadian waters over the last three years alone, and the calving rates are low, with fewer than 100 breeding females alive giving birth to just 12 babies in that time period.

Those statistics mean even one right whale death a year could doom the species to extinction, regulators say.

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 entanglements in crab, lobster and ground-fishing gear, especially in Canada, have sent its numbers tumbling.

ASSESSING IMPACT

The state plan is based on the belief that lobster buoy lines set within 3 miles of shore, inside a federally mandated whale exemption line, don’t pose a threat to right whales because whales don’t frequent that area. Under the state plan, inshore lobstermen wouldn’t have to change how many traps they set on a buoy line.

The trap number would rise in deep water, up to as many as 24 traps for a two-buoy trawl 12 miles off shore.

The state couldn’t say how many buoy lines would be removed under this plan because the number of traps placed in federal waters, where the proposed trawling up would occur, changes from month to month as the lobsters move in and offshore when shedding and regrowing their shells.

The bulk of Maine’s 5,000 state-licensed commercial lobstermen, or about 3,800 of them, fish inside of that whale exemption line, and wouldn’t be impacted by the state’s proposed whale protection plan, according to the state. About 1,200 have federal permits to fish in offshore waters, but most don’t fish there all year.

Genevieve McDonald places a bait bag in a lobster trap while fishing off the coast of Stonington in 2015. She is encouraging lobstermen to attend meetings to assess proposed regulations that are designed to protect right whales but might harm Maine’s lobster fishery. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“The newly proposed plan from DMR is an improvement,” said Genevieve McDonald, who fishes for lobster out of Stonington. “But it is not ideal, especially for vessels fishing offshore. I encourage lobstermen to attend the upcoming meetings to raise their concerns, ask questions and offer feedback.”

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is urging fishermen to attend this week’s meetings. While it knows a “do nothing” approach isn’t an option, MLA worries federal regulators expect Maine lobstermen to save the right whale on their own.

“MLA will insist that Maine lobstermen implement only whale protection measures to address the risk from our fishery,” said MLA director Patrice McCarron. “MLA will oppose measures that hold Maine lobstermen accountable for entanglement risk from other fisheries.”


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