Two men and a boy head out last month to a fishing boat in Bass Harbor for a day of hauling lobster traps off Mount Desert Island. On Wednesday, state officials announced they have decided to impose a controversial new trap limit offshore of MDI. Credit: Bill Trotter

State fishery officials have lowered the size limit for multi-trap lobster fishing lines in eastern Hancock County, despite some concerns that the rule change will only inflame passions between fishermen in the area.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, said he approved the rule change that was proposed by the council that sets some fishing rules in the area, even though he is concerned it will exacerbate conflicts between opponents and supporters of the measure.

The change came amid high tensions for fisherman in the area, who have feuded over the shared areas where they set their traps. The county’s coastal waters are divided between two of Maine’s seven semi-autonomous lobster fishing zones — zones B and C — and fishermen from each zone are allowed to set less than half their gear in the neighboring zone.

The ongoing feud was described in 2016 as a “trap war,” with fishermen cutting surface buoys from rivals’ traps to intimidate them from setting gear in the area.

The new rule adds a new layer of contention for fishermen in the area, which is roughly centered around Mount Desert Rock from one side of Zone B to the other. The rule will limit the number of traps that can be placed on one trawl, which is a line of traps connected to each other on the ocean floor, to five. The current rule, which will be replaced by the new one Oct. 1, sets a minimum of five traps per trawl. Many fishermen in the area now use 15-trap trawls.

The rule is aimed at decreasing the amount of gear and resulting gear entanglements in the affected area, which has become more heavily fished in recent years.

Kelliher said he would like to see a better compromise but thinks lowering the trawl limit in the affected area to five traps is reasonable.

“To encourage fishermen to come together in good faith to find potential compromise, the rule has been amended to include a sunset of Dec. 31, 2019,” Keliher said. “Depending on the outcome of the discussions, DMR will either propose an amended rule, the same rule or let the rule sunset. While I realize that many fishermen impacted by this rule will be unhappy with this outcome, I hope that this helps to explain how I came to this decision, and what to expect moving forward.”

Jeff Nichols, spokesman for DMR, said Thursday that while there have been heated gear conflicts between lobstermen in Zone C, which runs west from Swan’s Island to the west of North Haven in Penobscot Bay, and those in Zone B, which runs from Schoodic Point to Swan’s Island, the divide over the new rule is not defined by which zone a fisherman may fish in. Many fishermen who fish in Zone B prefer to use longer trawls and have voiced displeasure with the new rule, even though the governing Zone B council unanimously supports it.

“There are a lot of harvesters who are not in support of this,” Nichols said.

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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....