In this March 28, 2018 file photo, the baleen is visible as a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. Maine Gov. Janet Mills said in July 2019 that a federal plan to help endangered right whales at the expense of fishermen is "foolish" and is directing the state to come up with rules with a lesser impact on lobster fishermen. Maine's congressional delegation is backing the governor. North Atlantic right whales are facing the threat of extinction. Credit: Michael Dwyer | AP

Lobstermen would have to attach more traps to each fishing line they set a few miles or more offshore as part of a plan the state is proposing to reduce the amount of fishing line in the water and protect endangered right whales from entanglement.

The change follows years of debate about how to protect the critically endangered right whales, and is part of Maine’s response to expected new federal regulations that would require lobstermen to use less fishing line and weaker rope from which entangled whales could more easily break free.

The minimum number of traps fishermen need to attach to each line would depend on how far from shore they set the traps. The proposal to federal regulators, which is posted on the state Department of Marine Resources website, would raise minimums that were implemented four years ago as part of an earlier federal effort to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglement with fishing lines.

The regulators, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have the final word on the requirements Maine lobstermen would have to follow. NOAA itself is reacting to lawsuits filed by whale conservationists who accuse the agency of not doing enough to protect whales. The agency has said it plans to lower the risk of entanglement in Maine lobster fishing gear by 60 percent, most of which would be achieved by reducing the amount of vertical fishing lines that connect groups of lobster traps on the ocean floor to buoys floating at the surface.

No individual fisherman in Maine can use more than 800 traps, so by raising the minimum number of traps required on each line, there will be fewer vertical lines in the water.

Staff at the state Department of Marine Resources “have been working to ensure we have a draft plan that addresses both the risk to right whales and concerns of fishermen,” Patrick Keliher, the department’s commissioner, said in a statement. “This draft plan will not make everyone happy, [but] it provides legitimate protection to right whales in compliance with federal laws and, I believe, is an approach that can work for much of the industry.”

The proposal also would require lobstermen to include weak links on their fishing lines, to improve the chances of them breaking and allowing an entangled whale to swim free. In addition, it would require improved gear marking so that if ropes get tangled around a whale, it will be easier to know which state and which fishery it came from. Federal regulators have endorsed both of those concepts.

The North Atlantic right whale population — now estimated at around 400 — has declined by nearly 6 percent since January 2017, and 85 percent of the critically endangered species show signs of having been entangled in rope. The amount of vertical rope Maine lobstermen set in the ocean, whale conservationists have said, poses too significant a threat to the species to allow the practice to continue without reductions.

Watch: This right whale gets partially disentangled off Cape Cod

The federal target of reducing the number of vertical fishing lines in Maine’s lobster industry by half has generated pushback from Maine lobstermen and from Maine’s congressional delegation, who say the presence of right whales in waters close to Maine’s coast, where the vast majority of lobstermen set their gear, is nearly nonexistent.

Industry representatives and the delegation have pointed out that in recent years most right whale entanglement deaths have occurred in Canada, beyond the reach of U.S. regulations, and have insisted that any new rules be scientifically tested and proven to help protect whales before they are implemented.

The state’s current proposal would set no minimum number of traps for lines deployed inside the so-called “exemption line,” which runs roughly parallel to Maine’s shoreline approximately 3 miles out, though weak links still would be required in that area.

From 3 to 6 miles offshore, the minimum number of traps attached to each line would be raised from three to four if one buoy line is used, or to eight traps if there are buoys at each end of the trawl. From 6 to 12 miles out — where the current minimum is either five or 10 traps, depending on location — the new minimum would be 16 traps.

Beyond 12 miles, the minimum would increase from 15 traps per trawl to 24.

Federal regulators had proposed that lobstermen use at least 40 traps on each trawl outside 12 miles, but state officials believe that figure is unworkable, said Department of Marine Resources spokesman Jeff Nichols. Fishermen have said that longer trawls are more likely to get caught on the craggy ocean floor and could snap under strain when being hauled to the surface, posing an injury risk to people on board.

“We heard [from fishermen] that was basically impossible and potentially deadly,” Nichols said.

He said that the department believes the proposal adequately reduces entanglement risk where it is highest, in waters more than 6 miles from shore, but still will permit lobstermen to fish and earn a living.

“We’re trying not to unnecessarily penalize an industry that’s been at the table [to cooperate on whale safety measures] for the past 22 years,” Nichols said.

A NOAA spokeswoman said Tuesday that the agency has received Maine’s proposal and is reviewing it. The agency has said it plans to have a specific plan for vertical rope reductions by early 2020, with changes expected to go into effect the following year.

To gather feedback from lobstermen on the state proposal, the Department of Marine Resources has scheduled three public meetings next week in Ellsworth, Waldoboro and South Portland.

Meetings will be held Monday, Nov. 4, at The Grand Auditorium in downtown Ellsworth; Tuesday, Nov. 5, at Medomak Middle School in Waldoboro; and Wednesday, Nov. 6, at South Portland High School. The meetings will all start at 5 p.m.

Watch: The Maine lobster industry

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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....