ELLSWORTH — A growing number of Maine lobstermen are asking the state to resist federal pressure to change how they fish to protect the endangered right whale and called for state legal action to protect the $565 million a year fishery.

At a hearing in Ellsworth on Monday night, lobstermen chimed in on a state whale protection proposal that calls for a combination of weak rope, gear marking and more traps on offshore buoy lines to reduce the risk to right whales by about 58 percent.

It’s better than earlier plans, which called for the elimination of 50 percent of buoy lines, but it’s still dangerous for Maine fishermen who will be mired waist-deep in rope on deck, and won’t do anything to help the whales, they argued.

“It’s not going to work, there’s got to be a different way,” said Jim Hanscom, a Bar Harbor lobsterman who spoke out against adding more traps to weaker rope. “You’ve got to just buck up and say we can’t do this. it’s just not going to work.”

Some of the 100 fishermen who attended the first of three whale hearings this week urged the state to resist anything but state-specific gear marking. Some believe the regulators wouldn’t dare shut down the most lucrative fishery in the nation.

If the National Marine Fisheries Service caves to environmental groups, Maine can take its fight to court, they argued, where a judge will see that regulators have no proof that Maine fishing gear has killed a right whale in decades.


But Patrick Keliher, the state’s top fishing official, said such an approach is too risky.

“I’m not going to roll the dice on the lobster industry,” Keliher said. “We came up with a plan that shows we are managing the fishery and protecting whales. It’s not perfect. But I have no doubt it’s far better than what we’ll get from a federal judge.”

Maine is proposing to eliminate 25 percent of surface-to-seabed buoy lines set by state lobstermen in federal waters by requiring the fishermen to add more traps to each buoy line, or trawling up, as they move farther away from shore.

The state can’t say how many buoy lines would be removed under its plan because the number of traps placed in federal waters changes from month to month as the lobsters move in and offshore when shedding and regrowing their shells.

But the bulk of Maine’s 5,000 state licensed commercial lobstermen, or about 3,800 of them, fish inside state waters, and wouldn’t have to trawl up. About 1,200 have federal permits to fish in offshore waters, and most don’t fish there all year.

The Maine Lobstering Union is concerned the plan puts the offshore fisherman in physical danger. Not all of them have boats big enough to safely carry all the rope and long trawls proposed for these waters, union officials say.


The weak rope that will be required by the long deep-water trawls also will cause offshore fishermen to lose traps that get tangled up with other fishermen’s gear, they said. That costs money and litters the ocean floor with ghost gear.

Keliher said the state will work with offshore fishermen to make sure they can safely haul the gear required in those waters. They may be asking federal regulators for the flexibility to grant safety exemptions for smaller boats.

The trawling-up requirements increase as a lobsterman sets traps in deeper waters farther from shore, as seen as here:

• Three traps per buoy line in areas where there is a gap between exemption line and 3-mile mark.
• Four traps per single-buoy trawl or eight traps per two-buoy trawl between 3 and 6 miles.
• 16 traps per two-buoy trawl between 6 miles and 12 miles.
• 24 traps per two-buoy trawl from 12 miles to the federal boundary, which varies across the state.

The plan provides some flexibility in meeting these requirements, allowing the state’s seven area lobster fishing zones to consider adopting other rules if they reduce the risk to whales by the same level as the state plan. Keliher said such “conservation equivalencies” are used in other fisheries.

Keliher said this proposal focuses the whale protections on where right whales are most likely to be, and spares the large section of the Maine fleet that sets traps outside of the whale’s recently changing habitat. The whales follow the copepods it likes to eat, and the copepods are moving into deeper waters.

Scientists believe about 400 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 entanglements, especially in Canada, have sent its numbers tumbling.

Regulators claim that even one right death whale a year could doom the species to extinction.

The agency will present its proposal to the industry in Waldoboro on Tuesday night and South Portland on Wednesday before it submits the plan to NOAA. The agency is working on federal regulations to protect right whales from fishing entanglements.

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