Maine finalizes right whale protection plan for lobster industry

By Penelope Overton, Portland Press Herald | Jan 03, 2020

Maine has finalized a proposal to protect endangered right whales from entanglement in lobster fishing gear that would reduce the number of buoy lines in deeper waters, but also give it the freedom to adopt alternative protections to keep those fishermen and regional fishing practices safe.

The heart of the state plan is similar to one planned by the lobster industry last fall – cutting the number of buoy lines that could entangle a whale by setting a minimum number of traps fished on each line and requiring the use of lines with weak points to help entangled whales break free.

New to the plan is Maine’s bid to get federal approval for flexibility to allow alternative forms of fishing restrictions in cases where the statewide application of federal whale protections would put lobstermen in physical danger or run needlessly afoul of regional fishing practices.

That flexibility is the cornerstone of Maine Department of Marine Resources’s plan, said Commissioner Pat Keliher. Careful use of conservation equivalencies – alternative measures that produce the same effect – and individual safety alternatives is the best way to protect whales, fishermen and the lobster industry at the same time, he said.

“We want to develop a process that would allow us to mix and match regulatory changes to achieve the same risk reduction for whales while taking into account fishermen safety, traditional fishing practices, and fleet diversity,” Keliher said. “It would be a blend of giving and taking that achieves the same goal.”

Scientists believe only about 400 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when its population bottomed out at 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but low calving rates, ship strikes and entanglements, especially in Canada, have sent its numbers tumbling.

Regulators say even one right whale death a year could doom the species to extinction.

Maine submitted the proposal to the National Marine Fisheries Service Dec. 27. The federal branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency will evaluate the plan, as well as those from the other New England lobstering states, to see if it meets its proposed 60 percent risk reduction target.

The agency hopes to issue a final whale protection rule this spring, said spokeswoman Kate Swails.

Keliher said the department’s internal scientific review of the proposal found the state’s plan achieved a 50 percent to 60 percent risk reduction, depending on how much risk reduction regulators assigned to its use of weak points in surface-to-seabed buoy lines.

New data suggests weak rope protects whales more than federal regulators initially concluded, he said.

Keliher said the proposal focuses the whale protections on where right whales are most likely to be, and spares the large section of the Maine lobstering fleet that sets traps outside of the whale’s recently changing habitat. The whales follow the copepods it likes to eat, and the copepods are moving into deeper waters.

The bulk of Maine’s 5,000 state-licensed commercial lobstermen, or about 3,800 of them, would not be affected by the increasing trap counts on buoy lines, a practice known as trawling up, because they fish inside state waters, where trawling up is generally not required in Maine’s proposal.

About 1,200 have federal permits to fish in offshore waters, and most don’t fish there all year.

Maine’s proposed trawling-up requirements increase as a lobsterman sets traps farther from shore, including:

• Four traps per single-buoy trawl or eight traps per two-buoy trawl between 3 and 6 miles from shore.
• Eight traps per single-buoy trawl or 15 traps per two-buoy trawl between 6 miles and 12 miles from shore.
• 24 traps per two-buoy trawl from 12 miles from shore to the federal boundary, which varies across the state.

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