Maine fishermen have until March 1 to comment on a proposed rule that is intended to help protect the North Atlantic right whale, but could also have some unintended consequences for Maine’s biggest fishery. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing a reduction in lobster trap lines and state-specific markings for fishing gear as part of a plan to reduce the number of entanglements involving endangered right whales in New England waters. This plan does not include measures to help prevent ship strikes. 

NOAA released its proposal, which aims to reduce risk to whales by at least 60 percent, in late December.

There are only about 360 North Atlantic right whales remaining and officials are scrambling to keep their numbers from declining further.

Under the NOAA plan, the number of lobster trap lines would be reduced by requiring more traps per line, and gear would be marked with state-specific colors to identify gear if a whale becomes entangled. Maine implemented its own marking program (using purple) over the summer. 

Also, weak points that allow a line to break at 1,700 pounds would be required in virtually all waters from Maine to Rhode Island. These weak points would break the line if a whale becomes entangled.

The proposal would also modify existing seasonally restricted areas and create two new restricted areas to allow fishing using ropeless technology. 

One of these areas, known as Lobster Management Area 1, is more than 950 square miles about 30 miles off midcoast Maine. The area, which stretched roughly from Mount Desert Island down to eastern Casco Bay, would be closed from October through January.

NOAA officials estimate that 45 federally licensed boats fish in the area, but lobstermen have said the figures are seriously underestimated. 

NOAA is hosting virtual two public hearings, one for southern Maine on Tuesday and another for northern Maine on Wednesday. Both start at 6:30 p.m. 

For more information on the proposed rule, or to comment, visit the NOAA website

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