Reducing the impact of lobster lines on whales and limiting the resulting cost of gear changes to lobstermen will be the subject of hearings being held by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) next month in Maine. The hearings are an opportunity for the public to provide feedback on proposed conservation measures intended to reduce the risk of serious injury and mortality of large whales because of entanglements in vertical lobster trap lines. In this area, hearings will be held at the University of Maine at Machias in the Science Building on Monday, August 5, from 6 to 9 p.m. and at the Ellsworth Public Library on Tuesday, August 6, from 6 to 9 p.m.
As a result of public input received during the Draft Environmental Impact Study (DEIS) scoping process, in the summer of 2011 NMFS developed six alternatives to modify the plan. Although NMFS identified six options, one of which is preferred, public comments are sought on all the alternatives. NMFS will select one of the alternatives for implementation in the final rule.
Under five of the alternatives, in Maine state waters for Lobster Zone A, which extends from the Canadian border to Schoodic Point, the minimum number of traps per trawl would be two. In federal waters, from three to six miles from shore, the minimum number would be three traps, under the preferred alternative, or five. From six to 12 miles, the number according to the preferred alternative would increase to five. For more than 12 miles from shore, the number would be 10, or 15 under the preferred alternative. The number of endlines, or buoy lines, would be one in all cases, except two would be allowed for 12 miles or more from shore. Alternative 1 would maintain the status quo.
The new restrictions would not apply to gear within the existing exemption line in Maine waters that was adopted in 2009 as part of the rule-making process for switching to sinking groundlines. The line exempts about 70% of the state's waters, which extend out three miles from shore, except in Zone A the exemption area covers about 58% of state waters. The line is about four miles out from Winter Harbor, then, headed east, clips land at Great Wass Island, is about 1 1/2 miles off from Cross Island in Cutler and then hits the coast again at Bailey's Mistake in Lubec and tracks the coast to the border.
Terry Stockwell, director of external affairs for the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), notes that a proposal has been made to have any gear within the exemption line be marked. Also, lobstermen often fish gear both inside and outside the exemption line, and Downeast fishermen like to fish single traps because groundlines can get hung up on the rocky bottom. Although he has not heard concerns expressed yet about the NMFS proposals, he is sure "we'll get an earful" at the hearings.
Stockwell also notes that two options had been considered by NMFS: reducing the number of traps or the number of endlines. Since fishermen didn't want a trap reduction, NMFS is proceeding with plans to reduce the number of vertical lines by 30%.
The DEIS notes that Hancock, Knox and Washington counties are highly exposed to potential adverse economic impacts caused by these rules. Washington County has potential affected lobster landings of $51.8 million. The counties are highly dependent on fishing, and "the high poverty and unemployment rates in these counties suggest that they have limited capacity to absorb additional economic stress." Key communities in Washington County that are identified as being affected by the proposed rules are Jonesport-Beals, Cutler, Eastport and Lubec.
The estimated compliance cost for the lobster industry in Atlantic waters ranges from $1.65 million to $6.65 million, under the different alternatives. The costs are both gear conversion expenses and the impact on catches.
The DEIS notes other potential negative impacts, including that the rules could result in greater gear loss and that smaller vessels may have a hard time increasing the number of traps per trawl. The cost burden could create competitive disadvantages for smaller lobster vessels, causing industry consolidation.
For positive impacts, a 2012 pilot project conducted by the Maine DMR, the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation and the lobster industry found that fishermen who traditionally fished singles or pairs were able to haul traps configured in trawls more quickly than the same number of traps configured as singles. Also, some fishermen found that their success in grappling for lost gear was greater with trawls than with singles.
The report states that the fishing industry "is concerned that interactions between large whales and Canadian fishing gear are not being adequately addressed and the U.S. fishing industry is bearing the entire regulatory burden by being held responsible for all large whale entanglements." NMFS, though, is working with the Canadian government to implement protective measures for right whales in Canadian waters and with Canadian whale biologists and support teams to improve disentanglement efforts in Canadian waters.
NMFS first developed its Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan in 1997. The intent was to reduce the level of serious injury and mortality of three endangered stocks of large whales -- North Atlantic right, humpback and fin whales. Enacted measures were also intended to benefit minke whales, which are not endangered, but are also caught incidentally in gillnet and trap/pot gear. Currently, the plan includes a combination of broad‑based gear modifications, time‑area closures, disentanglement measures, research and outreach.
Despite these efforts, serious injuries and mortalities because of entanglements in vertical lines in trap/pot and gillnet gear continue to occur. NMFS is thus proposing additional modifications to the plan.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the number of deaths or serious injuries because of commercial fishing activities must not affect a species' ability to reach or maintain its optimum sustainable population. At present, the number of serious injuries and mortalities for right whales is nearly double sustainable limits and more than double the sustainable limits for humpback whales. In 2012 there were 42 large whale entanglements, with five right whales entangled and 27 humpback whales. While these numbers may seem low, for a vulnerable species like the North Atlantic right whale, where fewer than 450 animals may exist, even low numbers of serious injuries and whale deaths are cause for concern, according to NMFS. Even for humpbacks, a species that is well on its way to recovery, federal law only allows for a small number of animals to be subject to serious injury or mortality from commercial fishing.