A North Atlantic right whale is spotted by a whale watching group aboard the College of the Atlantic's research boat Osprey on Sept. 19, 2013, approximately 10 miles south of Mount Desert Rock off the coast of Maine. Hunted to near extinction, North Atlantic right whales are the rarest of all large whale species. Scientists estimate that only about 400 remain, down from around 450 at the time this photo was taken, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Calling a state proposal to reduce the amount of rope lobstermen use “a line in the sand,” Maine’s top fisheries official said Monday that he hoped the state plan generates data that absolves Maine’s lobster fishery from blame in right whale deaths.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, told a group of fishermen Monday in Ellsworth that the state’s proposal for reducing the risk to whales of getting tangled in lobster fishing gear does not meet federal regulators’ goal of cutting the number of vertical buoy lines in the water by half. But he said the state’s plan focuses its fishing line reductions in deeper waters offshore, where whales are more likely to come into contact with fishing gear.

“The further offshore you go, the higher the [risk] goes up,” Keliher told roughly 100 people, most of them lobstermen, at The Grand Auditorium. “The way I look at it, this is Maine’s line in the sand.”

Monday’s meeting was the first of three the state is holding about its 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.

Twice already in the past 10 years, in 2009 and 2014, concerns about whale safety have resulted in federal regulators imposing gear restrictions on Maine’s lobster fishery. Keliher said his goal this time around is to get federal regulators to accept what the state is proposing, and to allow for some flexibility so fishermen can pursue different strategies for reducing entanglement threats.

The state’s plan would reduce the amount of line in the water in part by requiring that lobstermen attach more traps to each buoy, especially in deeper waters. Because lobstermen are limited in the number of traps they can set, more traps per line would result in less line in the water. The plan would also require “weak links” in vertical lines, so a whale would have an easier time breaking free if it does get entangled. Maine lobstermen would also have to mark their ropes with purple markers so they could be easily identified as coming from Maine’s lobster fishery if they show up wrapped around a whale.

Whale conservationists have said that the millions of lines Maine lobstermen use makes the lobster fishery a statistically significant threat to the survival of endangered right whales. Eighty-five percent of North Atlantic right whales bear scars of having been entangled in rope.

The only recorded incident of a right whale getting tangled in Maine lobster gear occurred in 2002, Keliher said, and he does not think the lobster fishery is as great a threat to right whales as some say it is.

The new regulations expected from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration come as the federal agency is being sued by whale conservation groups who say the agency is violating the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act by not doing enough to protect North Atlantic right whales. There are believed to be about 400 whales remaining.

Fishing industry representatives and members of Maine’s congressional delegation have pushed back on efforts to further restrict Maine’s lobster fishery. They have pointed out that most right whale entanglement deaths in recent years have occurred in Canada, beyond the reach of U.S. regulations, and have argued that any new rules should be scientifically proven to help protect whales before they are implemented.

The state also is hoping to appease NOAA by requiring all licensed lobstermen to file monthly reports with the amount and location of gear they use and how much they catch, and to require vessel tracking for all lobstermen with federal permits. Currently only 10 percent of Maine lobstermen, who are randomly selected, have to file monthly harvester reports, and only fishermen with federal licenses for species other than lobster have to allow their vessels to be electronically monitored.

Lobstermen on the whole have long objected to having to file harvester reports, saying that the effort is time consuming, that regulatory agencies would have to hire more people to handle the increased paperwork, and that they do not want to be forced to disclose trade practices — namely, exact locations of where they set their gear — to the government.

Keliher, who in the past has opposed 100 percent mandatory reporting, said he believes the data would benefit the fishery. A few years ago, he said, federal regulators were prepared to shut down a large portion of fishing grounds off Mount Desert Island to protect marine corals until fishermen and the state gave them data showing that the lobster fishery was unlikely to harm corals in that area.

Keliher said he thinks the data will help demonstrate that most Maine lobstermen do not set gear in areas of the Gulf of Maine where right whales are known to be found. The data also likely would be useful in limiting the extent to which energy developers might want to pursue windpower, tidal or even oil drilling projects in the Gulf of Maine, he said.

Genevieve McDonald, a Stonington lobsterman and a Democratic member of the Maine House who was at Monday’s meeting, agreed with Keliher.

“This data will benefit us,” she said. “It gives us something to fight back with.”

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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....