After long hours hauling traps off the coast of South Thomaston on Wednesday, Barry Baudanza hadn’t had the chance to fully absorb all the changes headed his way after federal officials announced new rules governing the lobster industry the day before, but he knew one thing right off the bat: “This was the worst-case scenario.”

Among other changes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s newly released Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan will put more than 950 square miles of the Gulf of Maine off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January – the area’s most lucrative season. The goal is to reduce risk to endangered North Atlantic right whales by at least 60 percent. 

But lobstermen, the fishing industry and elected officials are pushing back. They say the new rules will be expensive, dangerous, burdensome and impractical, and won’t reduce the risk to whales. 

And despite lobstermen’s concerns and protestations that they aren’t even seeing right whales in Maine waters, conservationists argue that the plan does not go far enough to protect the critically endangered animals.

“Saving right whales from extinction requires more than these weak measures and limited closures, which represent just a fraction of when and where right whales are present in New England waters,” said Katharine Deuel, senior officer on Pew Charitable Trusts’ northern oceans conservation team, in a statement.

Stronger protections are needed and broadly supported, she said, “including a transition to ropeless fishing gear, closures in known areas of high risk at the right times, and dynamic management that closely tracks the changing patterns of right whales.”

The new plan requires lobstermen to modify gear configurations to reduce the number of vertical lines by requiring more traps between buoy lines and introducing weak insertions or weak rope into buoy lines so that a rope will break if a whale becomes entangled. The plan also modifies existing seasonal restricted areas to allow ropeless fishing and adds additional, seasonal restricted areas that are closed to buoy lines but allow ropeless fishing. 

The new seasonal closure in an area about 30 miles off midcoast Maine known as Lobster Management Area 1 stretches roughly from Mount Desert Island down to eastern Casco Bay. 

The plan closes the area to fishing from October through January but allows buoyless or “ropeless” fishing – a new and experimental technology that brings lobster traps to the surface using smartphone signals. The technology has not been tested in Maine. 

The late fall and winter months aren’t traditionally the busy season for Maine lobstermen, but for offshore fishermen, the colder temperatures mean harder shells and higher prices, making it a lucrative time of year.

Federal officials estimate the closure will affect about 120 vessels in all, including boats that fish the area and boats that may be crowded by vessels that move from the restricted area into waters bordering the closure. For those that fish there, officials expect the closure will cost between 5 and 10 percent of their total revenue each year.

But Ben Hardy, a lobsterman out of Stonington who relies on the closed area each fall, said that’s a gross underestimate. He believes that for some fishermen, losses will be closer to 50 percent.

“That’s pretty much my home for the wintertime, and it is (for) a lot of other guys,” Hardy said. “It’s our fall, the highlight of a lot of our season.” 

CROWDING CONCERNS

While Baudanza doesn’t fish much in the soon-to-be-restricted area – he did plan to set a few traps there this year – his concern is the loss of revenue he’ll face when people are pushed out of the closed area and into his own.

“Everything is so congested as it is,” he said. “To eliminate that bottom is going to cause a lot of problems. … Those folks will start, because they have to, moving northward in the area that I fish.”

Lobstermen Barry Baudanza and Billy-Ray Denman unload crates of lobsters after a day on the water Wednesday in South Thomaston. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

NOAA’s proposed rule explored the option for adaptive management, setting a sort of “trigger” that would signal the need for a closure instead of instituting an all-out ban on traditional fishing in the area for four months of the year. The option was not included in the final rule – partly, according to officials, because a reliable trigger was not identified.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said not only is the closure far larger than it needs to be, but it also poses risks beyond just increased competition.

“Denser aggregations of gear outside the restricted area will pose an increase in gear conflict as fishermen are displaced from the restricted area and forced to find new areas to set their gear,” Keliher said in a statement.

Joel Billings, another Stonington lobsterman who fishes in LMA 1, said the restriction will be a huge problem, both for lobstermen and for the marine patrol officers who have to monitor it.

“Lobstering is … territorial,” Billings said. “If you start closing big portions of the water and they start lugging traps where they’ve never fished before, there’s going to be a lot of controversy. You can’t blame the guys, because they’ve got to put their gear somewhere, so I can understand both sides, (but I) don’t know how that’s going to be resolved.” 

As it is, the ocean is like the “wild west,” and gear molestation happens almost daily, Baudanza said.

Hardy said he is less worried about gear conflicts than he is about “not being able to fish there for the best time, then to try to get into position later in the year.”

He and others are concerned, however, that the area could transform into a derby-style fishery – a season opens for just a short time, forcing fishermen to race to find a spot and land their catch in that window, sometimes at the risk of their safety. 

UNEXPECTED CHANGES

Lobstermen outside the closure area are also worried about what the future will bring.

Jeff Putnam, who lobsters off Chebeague Island, said it sets a “dangerous precedent” for the government to come in and shut down an area where there has never been evidence of an entanglement.

“It opens the door for other closures down the road,” he said.

Jim Hanscom, a Bar Harbor lobsterman, said the new regulations are “everyone’s worst nightmare.” 

“None of us thought it would come to this point,” he said. 

Some of the changes, like having more traps per line and adding weak links in the rope, can be dangerous, especially for fishermen with smaller boats, Hanscom said. If something happens lobsterman can grab has a chance to save themselveand there’s an end line on deck to grab, he said, lobstermen have a chance to save themselves, and it becomes a lifeline. But with ropeless fishing, they have to depend on a smartphone signal and then take the time to open an app and call up the gear, wasting seconds. 

Under current regulations, lobstermen might be able to grab an end line and save themselves if something goes wrong and they are being dragged off a boat. But with ropeless fishing, they have to depend on a smartphone signal and then take the time to open an app and call up the gear, wasting seconds.

Baudanza agreed.

Without question, without being overly dramatic, it’s life-threatening,” he said. “These are the things that these people that impose these rules and regulations, they just don’t see it firsthand.”

The rules also call for modifications to gear-marking, using state-specific colors to better identify where a whale became entangled.

Maine already implemented its own marking program over the summer, and throughout the planning and proposal process, officials were led to believe those changes were sufficient. However, the final rule included additional changes to the state’s gear marking systems, blindsiding government and industry officials, and fishermen. 

According to Keliher, the last-minute change “will not only compound the economic burden on fishermen who previously modified their gear, it also undermines the trust necessary for fishermen to engage in the rule-making process, and means Maine will think twice about being proactive when it comes to federal rules.”

TIME, MONEY, SAFETY

The gear modifications required by the rule will go into effect May 1, 2022, which is the start of the American lobster/Jonah crab fishing year. The changes to the seasonally restricted areas are expected to go into effect a month after they are entered into the Federal Registry, which is expected shortly.

Since 2017, 34 right whales have been killed, according to NOAA; 21 were in Canadian waters and 12 were in the U.S. 

Eleven incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including two in U.S. waters. No right whale deaths have ever been specifically linked to the Maine lobster industry, though many entanglements cannot be traced back to a specific state or fishery. 

The most recent known Maine entanglement occurred in 2004, but the whale survived.

With only about 368 of the endangered whales still alive, that reflects almost a 10 percent decline in their population in under five years. An estimated 85 percent of right whales show signs of entanglements, according to officials. 

The new plan does not include measures to help prevent ship strikes or reduce mortality and serious injuries in Canadian waters, which together account for the majority of right whale deaths.

Putnam and other lobstermen said they hope Maine’s elected officials will stand up for the industry, but many were not optimistic any change will be forthcoming.

In a letter to fishing industry members publicized Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills said she and the state’s congressional delegation are working on a path forward to “address the concerns” of the administration and the lobster industry.

“Protecting the right whale population must be done through regulations that are fair, that are safe for fishermen, and that accurately reflect the reality in the Gulf of Maine,” Mills said in the letter, but that NOAA’s new regulations “disregard fishermen’s time, money and safety.”

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