Over the past 10 years, the issue of how to protect endangered whales from getting tangled in fishing gear has been a driving factor in how lobstermen configure their gear and how much money they have to spend to comply with regulations.

Now federal officials have cited the need to protect deep-sea corals in a proposal to close some areas to fishing — a proposal that, according to lobstermen, could pose a serious threat to how they ply their trade.

“The [potential] financial impact is huge,” Jim Dow, a Bass Harbor lobsterman and board member with Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Wednesday. “You’re talking a lot of the coast that is going to be affected by it.”

The discovery in 2014 of deep-sea corals in the gulf, near Mount Desert Rock and along the Outer Schoodic Ridges, has prompted the New England Fisheries Management Council to consider making those area off-limits to fishing vessels in order to protect the coral from damage. According to Maine Department of Marine Resources, fishermen from at least 15 harbors in Hancock and Washington counties could be affected by the proposed closure.

But what has fishermen on edge the most about the concept is that regulators don’t know how much more coral has yet to be discovered in the gulf. They fear the proposed closure could set a precedent that would result in even more areas becoming off-limits to Maine’s $500 million lobster fishery, which is the biggest fishery in Maine and one of the most lucrative in the country.

“They could probably find coral along the entire coast of Maine, outside of 3 miles [in federal waters], if they start hunting for it,” David Cousens, a South Thomaston fishermen and president of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told more than 100 fishermen last month at a meeting on the topic at the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport.

Terry Stockwell, a senior DMR official who represents Maine on the council and other fishing regulatory entities, said the state has been lobbying the council to consider making an exception for the lobster trap fishery at the proposed closure sites in the gulf but so far without success. Traps are lowered and then raised from the bottom and so should cause less damage to coral than other types of gear such as scallop dredges, which are dragged along the bottom, according to Stockwell and others who support making lobster traps exempt.

“Twice I’ve gone down in flames,” Stockwell said of his efforts to date to get the council to agree to an exemption for lobster trap gear.

Further offshore in the Gulf of Maine, beyond the reach of the small boats that make up Maine’s lobster fishing fleet, the council also is proposing coral-related fishing closures in parts of the Jordan and Georges basins.

Outside the Gulf of Maine, roughly 100 to 200 nautical miles southeast of Cape Cod, are 20 underwater canyons at the edge of the continental shelf, where coral closures also could be enacted. Five of those canyons, along with four seamounts off the continental shelf, are part of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which former President Obama created last September and which is being challenged in federal court by the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Michelle Bachman, habitat coordinator for the council, said Wednesday that deep-sea coral falls under the council’s authority to protect marine habitats in U.S. waters from damage. The coral is not listed under the Endangered Species Act, but it is considered to be important habitat and to be vulnerable to damage from fishing.

“They are quite long-lived and fairly slow growing,” Bachman said, adding that some formations are estimated to be 1,000 years old. With estimated growth rates as slow as 1 centimeter per year, she said, it could take the coral centuries to grow back to its previous size if it is damaged.

Bachman said the proposed closure areas at Outer Schoodic Ridge and by Mount Desert Rock are relatively small, comprising maybe 2 or 3 percent of the lobster fishing zones where Maine fishermen set their gear. She said there could be more closures proposed in the gulf and elsewhere if more coral concentrations are found but added that such scientific expeditions are expensive and funding for them remains hard to get.

“There’s a sense that there may be more of these sites out there,” Bachman said.

Because the council is required to consider the financial impact of an outright lobster trap ban, DMR and lobster industry officials are strongly encouraging lobstermen who might be affected to give federal regulators direct data about how much gear they set and lobster they catch the proposed coral protection areas. According to DMR estimates, Maine lobstermen could make as much as $25 million off the lobster they catch each year along Outer Schoodic Ridges and southwest of Mount Desert Rock.

“Get off your ass and give them the data,” David Cousens told told his fellow lobstermen at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum.

According to Bachman, the council is scheduled to discuss the proposal further when it meets on April 18 in Mystic, Connecticut, and then is expected hold public hearings on it, most likely in late May. Comments on the proposal can be submitted online, she said, adding that a final rule on the closures could be adopted by early 2018.

Stockwell said that, compared the whale rules that forced lobstermen to reconfigure their gear and use a more expensive type of rope that does not float up in the water column, the prospect of closing coral grounds to the lobster trap fishery is worse and better.

It is better in that the coral, unlike right whales, is not listed and an endangered species and therefore federal regulators have to consider the potential economic impact of enacting new protections for the coral, he said. But, he added, the potential financial impact of more areas of the gulf being closed to fishing if more coral-rich areas are identified would be more severe than the mandated whale-safe gear modifications.

“This is a serious as a heart attack,” Stockwell said. “This is a big deal for us all.”

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....