Four homemade cardboard signs line the side of the entrance road to Trenton Elementary School on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. State officials held a meeting Tuesday at the school for area lobstermen about a looming federal mandate to reduce the number of vertical lobster fishing lines in the Gulf of Maine by half in order to reduce right whale entanglements. The issue of ship strikes, which also kill federally protected whales, was not discussed at the meeting. Credit: Bill Trotter

Having been told by federal regulators that, to better protect endangered whales, Maine lobstermen will have to reduce the number of vertical fishing lines in the water by half, state officials are beginning the complicated process of trying to figure out how to achieve that goal.

It’s complicated because the Maine Department of Marine Resources wants to preserve the state’s lobster fishery, which directly employs thousands of Maine fishermen and, along with the state’s lobster distribution network, is estimated to contribute $1 billion to the Maine’s economy. It’s also complicated because there is a wide variety within the fishery of how fishermen rig their gear, how much gear they set and where they set it.

At a meeting Tuesday night in Trenton, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher told roughly 150 people that the department wants to ensure that the looming rules maintain the diversity within the fishery — which includes children who set a few traps from skiffs in their local harbors and so-called “high-liners” who set lines or “trawls” of 20 traps or more a dozen miles or more out to sea.

If the department comes up with too simple a formula for how to achieve a 50 percent reduction in vertical lines, Keliher said, it would affect some fishermen and some areas along the coast far more than others.

“We want to support all levels of the fishery,” Keliher told the group, most of them fishermen from Zone B, which extends from Swan’s Island to Schoodic Point. There are seven zones along Maine’s coast each with its own council that sets some of the fishing rules for that zone.

The reduction in vertical lines or end lines, which connect traps to a surface buoy that fishermen use to locate and identify their gear, is being pushed by whale advocates who say that the rope poses a severe entanglement threat to whales in general and specifically to right whales, whose population in the north Atlantic Ocean is getting dangerously low. Only 400 or so north Atlantic right whales are estimated to exist, and even one entanglement is enough to push the population closer to extinction, they say.

Multiple environmental groups have sued the National Marine Fisheries Service over the issue, saying that it is violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act by not doing enough to reduce the threat of whale entanglements in the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere. In response, federal regulators have told fisheries officials in Maine — which because of its lobster fishery has far more vertical lines on the East Coast than any other state — that if the state does not come up with a plan to achieve the 50 percent end line reduction, federal officials will.

Keliher stressed that Maine fishermen will be better off by coming up with their own reduction formula than they would be if federal fisheries officials or a federal judge set the specific technical requirements. And he said that if he thought it would make a difference, he would be in favor of filing a counter lawsuit against the feds.

But there aren’t any specific technical mandates to file suit over yet, he said, and the federal government has a very good record of winning lawsuits over federal wildlife conservation laws.

“Federal agencies don’t lose lawsuits,” he said.

The pending mandate will be the third time in the past decade that federal fisheries officials have forced Maine fishermen to change the way they set their gear. In 2009 floating ground lines were banned, and in 2014 federal officials required fishermen to use multi-trap trawls beyond a certain distance from shore.

Keliher and his staff have six more meetings scheduled this month with other lobster zone councils. As was the case Tuesday night in Trenton, Keliher is urging fishermen in each zone to come up with suggestions for how fishermen in that zone might make changes to help the state overall meet the end line reduction goal.

Much of the other discussion at Tuesday’s meeting was technical, with fishermen telling DMR officials about how they rig their gear, or what types of configurations are popular in certain areas because of the type of ocean bottom or tide conditions that exist along the coast.

Billy Bob Faulkingham, a fisherman from Winter Harbor and a Republican member of the state House of Representatives, suggested that the state could set a limit on how many end lines each fisherman could use, similar to the maximum limit of 800 traps a fishermen can set.

“Let people set a certain amount of end lines how they want,” Faulkingham said.

Keliher said that would be complicated to do, given trap and trawl limits that vary between state and federal waters and from zone to zone, but that “it is something that can be considered.”

Keliher said he plans a second round of meetings with the zone councils in August so that the councils can tell the state what adjustments they think they can live with.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Tuesday that it will be difficult to make the adjustment but that the fishery will remain intact with the mandated end line reduction.

“Fishing practices will change [and] people will definitely make sacrifices,” McCarron said. “There’s a lot of ways to get there, we just have to find the ones that are going to support our industry. The alternative is untenable, to let the feds decide for us. We can’t let that happen.”

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....