The ropeless thing has me extremely concerned, especially if it gets mandated across the gamut. All of my best cod spots are shared with lobstermen, I'd lose a ton of gear...
NOAA imposes seasonal ban on traditional lobstering for large part of Gulf of Mainepressherald.com/2021/08/31/noaa-imposes-seasonal-ban-on-traditional-lobstering-for-large-part-of-gulf-of-maine/
By Hannah LaClaire and Kevin Miller Staff Writer
August 31, 2021
A 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine will be off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January – the year’s most lucrative season – under new federal rules designed to protect an endangered whale species.
Federal officials on Tuesday released a new set of rules for Maine’s lobster fishery aimed at reducing the risk to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, which are believed number less than 400 worldwide.
But many industry officials worry that the changes will instead shift the risk to the lobster fishery that is the backbone of Maine’s fishing industry. And the new rules are unlikely to satisfy either conservation groups pushing for stronger safeguards for whales or Maine political leaders who are fiercely protective of the state’s iconic lobster industry.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan aims to reduce risk to the North Atlantic right whales by at least 60 percent. The plans released Tuesday include: gear modifications to reduce the number of vertical lines by requiring more traps between buoy lines, introducing weak insertions or weak rope into buoy lines so that a rope will break if a whale becomes entangled, modifying existing seasonal restricted areas to allow ropeless fishing, and adding additional, seasonal restricted areas that are closed to buoy lines but allow ropeless fishing.
The latter, which includes a new seasonal closure in a large area about 12 nautical miles off midcoast Maine known as Lobster Management Area 1, has been one of the most hotly contested of the plan’s changes.
The affected area is more than 950 square miles and stretches roughly from Mount Desert Island down to eastern Casco Bay.
The plan closes the area to fishing from October through January but allows buoyless or “ropeless” fishing – a new and experimental technology that brings lobster traps to the surface from smartphone signals.
Federal officials estimate that this closure will impact about 120 vessels (up from their original estimate of about 45). Half of those likely catch lobsters in the restricted area, and the other half may be crowded by the boats that move from the restricted area into waters outside of that closure, reducing the overall catch rates.
The closure is expected to cost lobstermen between 5 and 10 percent of their annual revenue each year.
The administration of Maine Gov. Janet Mills and members of the state’s congressional delegation had not responded to the new NOAA plans as of midday Tuesday.
But in an August 21 letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, delegation members urged the Biden administration “to avoid hasty, late-breaking changes” to measures that had been negotiated over several years. Maine’s four delegation members – Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden – raised particular concerns about the prospects of a seasonal closure to lobster fishing with rope in part of Maine.
“An absolute closed area would be very costly, if not prohibitive, to the business models of numerous fishermen and, in many respects, would seemingly not provide much additional risk reduction” to whales, the delegation wrote. “We strongly believe that fishermen should not lose access to fishing grounds unless whales are present.”
The new rules also call for modifications to gear marking, using state-specific colors for gear marks to better identify where a whale became entangled. Maine already implemented its own marking program over the summer, so its purple designation will stand.
The gear modifications required by the rule will go into effect May 1, 2022, which is the start of the American lobster/Jonah crab fishing year, NOAA said in a press release Tuesday. The changes to the seasonally restricted areas will go into effect in 30 days.
The total cost of all proposed measures for including gear marking, weak rope, restricted area and gear conversion costs range from $5.9 million to $12.8 million annually, $28 million to $61 million in total, according to a draft environmental impact statement.
In a February letter to NOAA’s regional fisheries director, Mills expressed “grave concerns” about the agency’s goal of a 98 percent risk reduction to whales from the fishing industry by 2030. The plan released Tuesday is the first phase of that roughly 10-year conservation framework released by NOAA in May.
“It is hard for my administration and the industry to imagine how these targets could not be achieved without a conversion to ropeless fishing – a still highly untested technology which raises more questions than answers,” Mills wrote at the time. “If this comes to pass, it is not only fishermen and their crew who will be impacted by a significant change in the operations of the fishery. Gear suppliers, trap builders, rope manufacturers – all these businesses face a deeply uncertain future as a result of the propose 98% risk reduction over the coming decade.”
Since 2017, 34 right whales have been killed, according to NOAA. An earlier estimate of 33 deaths attributed 21 to Canada and 12 to the U.S.
Eleven incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including at least two in U.S. waters, but none can be linked to the Maine lobster industry. The most recent known Maine entanglement occurred in 2004, but the whale survived.
Additionally, since 2017, 16 live whales have been documented with serious injuries from entanglements or vessel strikes. “Serious injuries” means the whale is likely to die from its injuries, though it was alive at last sighting.
With only about 368 of the endangered whales still alive, that reflects a more than 10 percent decline in their population in under five years. An estimated 85 percent of right whales show signs of entanglements, according to officials.
At least one environmental organization heavily involved in the years-long regulatory battle said Tuesday that the rules do not go far enough to protect North Atlantic right whales. While the Conservation Law Foundation praised the inclusion of additional closure areas and the plan’s official encouragement of ropeless fishing, the organization said a 60 percent reduction is inadequate given the plight of the whales.
“While this rule is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough or fast enough to stop the precipitous decline of this species,” Erica Fuller, senior attorney at the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, said in a statement. “We plan to challenge the new rule in court to ensure that right whales recover rather than become an extinction statistic. That means reducing the risk of serious injuries and deaths by at least 80 percent immediately, not fiddling while Rome burns.”
Producing about 82 percent of the country’s lobster, Maine’s lobster fishery is the largest in the United States, but fishermen say they’re not seeing the whales in Maine waters, despite bearing the brunt of the burden in the new plan.
The NOAA plan does not include measures to help prevent ship strikes or reduce mortality and serious injuries in Canadian waters, which together account for the majority of right whale deaths.