During the hearing about new rules to reduce the risk of large whales becoming entangled in lobster trap gear, fishermen raised concerns about the implementation date, the proposed closed areas and the gear-marking requirements, but they seemed accepting of most of the requirements of the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) preferred choice of six alternatives for the regulations. Over 25 fishermen, almost all from the Jonesport-Beals area, attended the August 5 hearing at the University of Maine at Machias, the first in a series being conducted by NMFS on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).
The proposal seeks to reduce the number of buoy lines by 30% by not allowing the fishing of single traps and by requiring more traps per trawl, based on distance from shore and area, and allowing only one endline for trawls fished up to 12 miles from shore.
The proposed implementation date for the new rules -- the fall of 2014 -- drew criticism from a number of fishermen. Elihu Beal of Machias noted that the fall is the best time for fishing and said it would be better to have the regulations implemented during the winter when traps are ashore. "None of us can afford to take our gear up and change it all over," he said. "There's no way in the world fishermen could haul up all our gear in the prime season." Maine Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher and Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, also urged a different date for implementation, proposing June 1, 2015.
Concerning the proposed closures of Jeffreys Ledge from October through January and Jordan Basin from November through January, Keliher said the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) "strongly opposes" the closures and had offered alternatives. McCarron said the closures would result in only a limited gain in reducing the risk to whales, and Stanley Sargent of Milbridge felt that the closures would not result in fewer entanglements, since the lobstermen who fished those areas would still fish, placing their gear around the perimeter. "How will that reduce the number of endlines? They'll put up a wall" around the closed area, he said. David Gouveia, supervisor of the Marine Mammal Program for NMFS's Northeast Regional Office, noted that the closure recommendation was not developed by NMFS but rather by scientists.
The new regulations also would increase the size and frequency of the marks that are required on buoy lines. Keliher said the DMR is opposed to the gear-marking requirements for federal Lobster Conservation Area 1A and the Area 1A exemption area. He noted that the requirement for different marking patterns on gear would be cost-prohibitive for fishermen. McCarron said the association is opposed to adding a gear-marking requirement inside the state's exemption line, since lobstermen fish inside and outside of the line and would need to have two different color schemes for their lines, which she said would be "operationally impossible" for fishermen. Bill Anderson of Trescott agreed, saying the requirement for different gear marking inside and outside of the state's exemption area "doesn't make sense to me," since he shifts his traps from inside to outside the exemption line at different times of the year.
McCarron said the Maine Lobstermen's Association overall supports alternative 5, which is the option preferred by NMFS. She noted that fishermen are still struggling with the sinking groundline rule that was adopted in 2009, since it creates safety hazards and is costly.
Stanley Sargent commented that fishermen are losing more gear now because of the requirement for weak links, noting that his gear has been found off New York state. With more gear lost because lines are chafing off with the weak links and sinking groundlines, he believes more whale entanglements could be occurring. Dixon Smith of Beals said he would like to see a study of the risk created by lost gear caused by the sinking groundline requirement.
Keliher noted that the NMFS proposal does not establish a risk reduction target. Gouveia explained that NMFS does not have an estimate on what the reduction in the number of endlines will do for reducing the number of whale deaths; instead the proposal was developed based on what was feasible for fishermen. He noted that the Marine Mammal Protection Act's mandates for reducing the level of serious injury and mortality for three endangered whales are set by Congress and are not driven by the threat of lawsuits.
The public comment period on the DEIS ends on September 13.