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Lobstermen fed up, facing drastic rules to protect whales

Fishermen, lawmaker say president should help
By Daniel Dunkle | Jun 21, 2019
Photo by: Daniel Dunkle Lobstermen gather at Camden Hills Regional High School June 20 to talk about potential drastic restrictions on the fishery aimed at protecting right whales.

Camden — Lobstermen expressed their fears that there will be no end to the restrictions placed on them as regulators consider cutting the number of vertical ropes the fishermen use to haul traps by 50 percent in an effort to protect endangered right whales.

More than 100 fishermen attended a meeting with Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher June 20 at Camden Hills Regional High School.

Lobstermen said they have already changed to weaker, breakable lines and sinking line in an effort to pacify government regulator's who say the whales can become entangled in the ropes and die.

"The end game is to have us not fish," one lobsterman said at the meeting.

The right whale population is estimated to be down to 445 whales in the 2018 stock assessment. About five were killed because of entanglement in ropes that year, though it is not clear where the ropes came from, and less than one was killed by ship strikes, the other primary danger to them. Environmental groups have called on NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service for stronger regulations and protections to save the species from extinction, even suggesting eliminating all ropes used in lobster fishing.

Lobstermen and some lawmakers question the data, noting that the whales are not tagged and tracked properly. Several of the lobstermen at the meeting asserted that there are no right whales in Penobscot Bay, so reducing the number of lines and the amount of fishing gear there will not help save them. DMR staff noted at the meeting that the whales' patterns of movement have changed because of alterations in ocean temperature and the location of the food the whales feed on. Scientists believe the whales may migrate to places they have not been seen before.

Keliher acknowledged that he found it concerning that the scientific community was not working harder to tag and track the whales. Scientists have contended there is no good place to tag the whales, which do not have dorsal fins, and embedding tags in the blubber leads to infection and the tags fall off.

At stake is 50 percent of Maine's most important commercial fishery. State data shows the fishery's landings alone are valued at nearly $500 million, and that does not take into account the economy built around the fishery, including those who sell boats, service them, store them, fuel sales, bait sales, gear suppliers, seafood wholesalers, dealers, store sales and the restaurant and tourist industry. Even that fails to take into account the economic impact of local fishing families living in the community using money earned in the fishery to buy homes, vehicles and pay bills.

"It's the theater of the absurd," said State Rep. Jeff Evangelos, independent of Friendship, who attended the meeting. "A group of unelected bureaucrats sitting in Massachusetts, lacking any scientific evidence or peer review studies, have undertaken harmful actions against Maine's prime fishery, our lobster industry, to the detriment of our coastal economy. All options should be on the table, including our congressional delegation and governor appealing directly to the president for executive action, our attorney general filing a lawsuit and injunction, all the way up to mass civil disobedience by industry members and our allies. Seriously, the bureaucrats want to practically shut down our lobster industry as we know it, while they haven't shut down one container ship? It's absurd, and we must fight it."

His statement echoes sentiments expressed by a number of fishermen at the meeting.

Lobsterman Ryan Post said they were arguing with people who want this to be a ropeless fishery. He called on Maine lawmakers and others to stand up for the fishery and fight the federal government on this issue, and he said President Donald Trump might be the only person who could save them.

"It's time for the state of Maine to say 'no more!'" he said, and his comments were greeted with applause.

Fishermen also raised concerns about proposals that they fish more than one trap to a line, three and four traps rather than one or two, while using weaker line that the whales would have a better chance of breaking through and escaping. Lobstermen said this created a safety concern when breaking lines caused injuries and deaths on the water, and the liability for those incidents fell on the fishermen, not the regulators.

Keliher acknowledged this, mentioning reports of "lost fingers."

One fishermen said he told his grandsons he did not want them to follow him into the business, as they wanted to, because he didn't want them to have to go through this.

Keliher said the solution at this time is not a lawsuit. There is no way to file a lawsuit until the regulations are finalized, which could be in 2021. The timeline for how this will play out is in doubt, because some environmental groups have already filed lawsuits seeking to speed up the process of issuing a biological opinion that would inform new, stricter protections and regulations to save right whales.

Fishermen and DMR argue the concept of remote-controlled lobster traps that would rise by the use of technology without any lines is not feasible for this fishery.

Currently regulators are looking at 50 percent vertical line reductions, marking gear so that if ropes are found on whales they can be linked to their source, increased reporting of fishermen's activities and other measures.

The fishermen do seem to be receiving some support from Maine lawmakers. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, proposed a measure to withhold funding for the lobster fishing restrictions, arguing the government was using an unproven scientific tool, but Keliher said at the meeting that effort had been defeated.

Maine Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, and Evangelos attended the meeting, as did representatives from Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and independent U.S. Sen. Angus King's offices.

Bait problems, rock weed harvesting

Whale regulations are only one of the problems facing lobstermen this season.

Because of concerns about too few juvenile herring in the waters, regulators reduced the herring quota by 77 million pounds from 2018 to 2019, according to Patrice McCarron of the Maine Lobsterman's Association.

"Herring has long been a staple of our bait supply, so we are anticipating a bait shortage this year," she said. "It is still very early in the season."

Seth Anderson at O'Hara's Corp. in Rockland said there is not enough frozen bait to fill the gap for fishermen. He said there will be days when fishermen won't be able to haul because there will not be enough bait.

He acknowledged taht prices have increased, but said the blame belongs to the regulators for cutting the herring catch and not the bait dealers.

As a result of these pressures, lobstermen may fish less often, finding it is only profitable during the busier part of the season, and they want to save their bait for those times.

Friendship scientist Diane Cowan of the Lobster Conservancy believes the juvenile herring population was affected by over-harvesting of rockweed, which the juveniles use to hide in from predators.

"We can't have what happened in Nova Scotia happen here in the Gulf of Maine," she said. "The entire area of Muscongus Bay was clear-cut. Muscongus Bay now looks like a dead zone."

She continued, saying, "All the creatures the rockweed harbors are missing from the seascape. I am flabbergasted. Where are the eiders? Where are the brits [baby herring]? Where are the great blue heron? ...The sea doesn't smell right, it doesn't look right, 90 species that should be thriving here are not. It's a travesty."

Lobsterman Ryan Post, left, says the state should stand up and fight against strict restrictions being proposed. Also pictured is lobsterman Erik Waterman. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher fields comments and questions about potential lobster fishing restrictions June 20 at Camden Hills Regional High School. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
Bait herring at O'Hara's Corp. in Rockland awaits its chance to lure lobster. This bait may be in short supply and more expensive soon because regulators slashed the allowable herring catch. (Photo by: Daniel Dunkle)
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Comments (2)
Posted by: claire perry | Jun 24, 2019 10:30

In 45 years we have killed off 60% of our wildlife.  Read that again.  Think about it.  This banquet isn't going to last forever if some hard steps aren't taken and soon.

I support lobstering.  I also support science.  The words of warning from Diane Cowan should turn everybody's blood cold !  I had a bad feeling when I watched a boat "harvesting" rockweed from along the shoreline on Mussel Ridge Channel.  When I called the Coast Guard to ask what was happening, I was told that there were no regulations on the books to prevent them from "harvesting" all they wanted.  Inexcusable.  People in charge are not doing their jobs, folks.


The size of lobster boats has doubled and even tripled in a matter of a few short years...the number of traps that an individual is allowed to haul is mind-numbing.  I have to question if it is all necessary or ego-greed driven.  If  it is the latter, we are in trouble.

I'd like to hear more about this and I hope VS does follow-ups with both sides being heard.  I do think our lobstermen are being hit over and over again with "something new" to have to do or buy.  That would frustrate the hell out of me too !  Let's find a workable balance that takes our environment and our lobstermen into consideration.  The lack of clear scientific evidence troubles me...but so does the mass-extinction of one-MILLION species.

What have we done.

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jun 22, 2019 13:55

The fishermen should be protected and encouraged to continue fishing for their living. It takes an amount of money and courage to forage the oceans.applaud not punish and not restrict these hard working men.

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