Fewer Traps, More Lobsters

Posted March 12, 2009, at 11:07 p.m.

There are 2.5 million lobster traps in the water off the coast of Maine. That’s a lot of rope to entangle boat propellers, other fishing equipment and worse, endangered whales. Starting next month, lobstermen will have to replace the line between their traps with a specialized rope that is meant to sink, posing less of a threat to right whales, an endangered species. This transition is costly.

At the Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport last week, the Ocean Conservancy proposed another way to protect whales — putting fewer traps in the water in the first place. This simple concept, which would also reduce fuel and bait costs, is worth further consideration.

According to the conservation group, which got its data from the National Marine Fisheries Service, 256 whales were entangled between 1997 and 2005. In the 60 cases where the fishing gear could be identified, 36 percent were from lobstering and 38 percent from gill net fishing.

Three right whales were found with gear from Maine’s inshore lobster fishery, including one whale with lobster line that was set at the mouth of Penobscot Bay.

Although the number of entanglements is small compared to the volume of lobstering off Maine’s cost, killing even one endangered right whale could have dire consequences for the industry. Lobstermen have already made changes to reduce the risk to whales, but simply putting fewer traps in the water could help them too.

Maine lobstermen generally agree. A survey, done last summer by the Department of Marine Resources, found that 56 percent of lobster license holders would support reducing the number of traps in their area.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has spearheaded discussion of so-called “effort reduction” due to the widespread concern that there is too much gear and-or too many people trying to catch the limited number of lobsters. Protecting whales is also a consideration, but lobstermen rightly want better data on where the cetaceans are and how reducing traps and lines would help them.

Maine currently allows lobstermen to fish up to 800 traps, the highest number in the world.

Concerned that too many lobsters were being caught, the Australian government in the 1960s started to limit the number of traps in the fleet and licenses were sold to fishermen already in the fleet.

Newcomers had to buy licenses from fishermen already in the business. A trap license bought for $2,000 in 1984 sold for $35,000 in 2000. This leaves those getting out of the business with a nice retirement nest egg. The system encourages fishermen to leave lots of lobster in the water so that their licenses will be valuable when they want to sell them.

Lobstermen also work shorter days, usually tending fewer than a total of 100 traps, and the lobsters they catch are bigger than those in New England.

A system that benefits lobstermen and reduces the risk to endangered whales is certainly worth a closer look.

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