The following is a April 29, 2019 message to Maine Lobstermen's Association from executive director Patrice McCarron.
After a long and difficult week, the Take Reduction Team (TRT) concluded its meeting and the Maine lobster fishery now has a sense of what the new rules to protect right whales will mean for us. There were some hard-fought battles along the way aimed at ensuring a viable Maine lobster fishery both for today’s lobstermen and for future generations.
On day three of the TRT meeting, NMFS Deputy Assistant Administrator Sam Rauch addressed TRT members. He did not mince words in stating that the TRT’s job is to identify measures to reduce right whale serious injury and mortality from lobster gear by 60%-80%. He was clear that the TRT meeting gave the fishing industry its opportunity to shape how that reduction is achieved. If we failed that task, NMFS would begin rulemaking without our advice and decide for us.
After days of considering a variety of alternatives, Maine agreed to reduce its risk to right whales by 60% as long as other states and lobster fishing areas agreed to do the same. To achieve this, Maine has committed to a 50% reduction in vertical lines. Additional elements of Maine’s plan will include fishing toppers on buoy lines (stronger rope on bottom, weaker rope on top), unique marking of Maine’s buoy lines, and improved reporting. Other states and lobster fishing areas will devise their own plans to meet this 60% risk reduction.
Our biggest accomplishment during this week is removing ropeless fishing from this round of whale rules. The conservation community was clear that ropeless fishing was their goal. While this strategy should be explored as a solution for areas where large aggregations of whales overlap with important fishing grounds, such as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Cape Cod Bay, it should not be pursued for areas like Maine where whale sightings are rare. There is no feasible economic or operational model for ropeless fishing in Maine.
Maine now understands exactly what the lobster fishery has to do to comply with NMFS’ goal. The MLA will work with DMR and lobstermen on how best to remove 50% of our vertical lines from the water. The cuts are deep and the work will be extremely challenging. It will require us to rethink much of how our fishery is executed. But this approach gives lobstermen some flexibility to develop a broad set of techniques so that Maine’s diverse lobstering operations, both large and small, can remain viable.
By making these changes, in combination with new gear marking and reporting requirements, Maine will be able to credibly establish the extent to which Maine lobster gear is – and is not – involved in harming whales. Maine will confirm that its lobster fishery is a safe fishery for right whales. In doing so, it is our hope that we will continue to have a strong fishery to pass on to our children.
Many thanks to lobstermen Kristan Porter, Dwight Carver, Mike Sargent, John Williams, and DMR’s Erin Summers for your passion and energy in fighting to maintain a bright future for Maines’ lobstermen at the TRT meeting.