More lobster gear limits eyed

Posted April 19, 2009, at 8:10 p.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — On the heels of a new federal rule being implemented to help prevent whales from getting entangled in lobster fishing gear, another possible regulatory change for the fishery is being discussed by scientists, regulators and environmentalists.

Different goals have been cited by people involved in the discussion, but regardless of the objective the question is the same: Should the limit of 800 traps per fisherman in Maine be reduced?

Whales advocates say that though the federal government now requires fishermen to use sinking groundlines between the traps they set in a line on the ocean bottom, the ropes that connect these multitrap trawls to buoys that float at the surface still pose an entanglement threat. If there were fewer traps in the water, they say, there also would be less rope in the water column.

A reduction in the trap limit also could help fishermen get more bang for their buck by reducing expenses and making their efforts more efficient, environmentalists have argued. Fewer traps to set and haul means less money spent on bait and gas.

Jon Carter, a fisherman from Bar Harbor and a member of the state’s lobster advisory council, disagrees.

“We’ve been told we need to take traps out of the water, [that] we’ll make more money,” Carter said recently at a lobster industry meeting in New Brunswick. “I’m of the mind-set it would cost me more money to haul fewer traps.”

Calling himself a “lobster catcher,” Carter said he has been conditioned over his 30-year career to try to catch as much lobster as he can. If he has only 400 traps to work with, he said, he likely would try to haul them twice as often to maximize his catch, which would not reduce the amount of fuel or bait that he uses.

Carter noted that Canadian lobstermen fish about half as many traps during a shorter season, but he expressed doubt that their expenses are any less than his.

“I’m not in favor of taking traps away from the business,” he said. “I’m in favor of letting people work.”

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has taken the position that it opposes trap limit reductions as a means of addressing the whale issue because traps by themselves don’t pose a threat to whales. Rope, state officials say, is the issue that needs to be addressed.

But that hasn’t stopped the state from examining what the effect of reducing the trap limit might be. In fact, the state already has done some research that suggests it is possible to dramatically reduce the number of traps in a given area without having a similarly drastic reduction in the number of lobsters caught.

Carl Wilson, chief lobster scientist for DMR, conducted an experiment in the fall of 2005 in the closed waters off Monhegan. The experiment was aimed at testing the catch rates of different trap densities around the island.

In areas that each covered approximately 1 square nautical mile, Wilson and participating fishermen set traps in groups of 50, 150 and 500. Each trap was hauled every four days over a six-week period in September and October.

According to Wilson, they caught 5,500 lobsters with 5,000 total hauls in the 500-trap areas. In the 150-trap areas, where the traps were hauled a total of 1,800 times, they caught 4,800 lobsters. The lowest density, 50 traps, resulted in 1,800 lobsters being caught over a total of 500 hauls.

The significant comparison is between the 150- and 500-trap densities, according to Wilson. With only one-third the number of traps, the 150-trap densities caught 87 percent of the number of lobsters caught in the 500-trap densities, he said.

“The results are very compelling and I have no problem defending what we found,” Wilson said. But he acknowledged he might not get the same results elsewhere. “I think the application [of the experiment’s results] to the entire state is a bit of a jump at this point.”

Wilson said he does not know what the optimal trap density might be. But he said he thinks it “unnecessary” for the industry to have been issued 3.2 million lobster trap tags last year. During high lobstering season in the summer, he said, there can be as many as 2,000 traps per square nautical mile in Maine’s waters.

“The number of traps in the fishery worry me,” Wilson said. “I think the expectations on the fishery are too high.”

To see whether he can replicate similar results elsewhere, Wilson is trying to find funding for another trap-density project this summer in Tenants Harbor.

Scott Kraus, vice president of research for New England Aquarium in Boston, and Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, each attended a meeting earlier this month in Providence where the issue of trap limits was discussed. Kraus and McCarron are among the many members of a committee called the Take Reduction Team, which has been charged by federal government to explore ways to reduce whale entanglement in fishing gear.

In separate recent interviews, Kraus and McCarron each said that the concept of trap reductions is being considered by the team as a way to address the entanglement problem but that it has yet to become a major point of contention. To better understand how and where entanglements occur — and maybe to stave off a heated debate about trap limits — New England Aquarium and Maine Lobstermen’s Association are working together to come up with better data about where whales and fishing gear tend to overlap.

Kraus said that without this information, whale protection regulations that determine how lobstermen fish will continue to be driven by lawsuits against the federal government, as was the case with the new groundline rule. As long as lawsuits are the main stimulus for new gear restrictions, he said, the rules that are put in place most likely would affect all lobstermen uniformly.

A more scientifically sound and effective solution, he suggested, might be to use a multipronged approach that affects different lobstermen in different ways but that still keeps whales from coming into contact with fishing gear. For example, eliminating gear in certain areas at certain times of the year might help achieve this overall goal, he said.

“That is not a trivial task,” Kraus said. “It is really, really difficult.”

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