ELLSWORTH, Maine — In 2009, when the federal government imposed new rules on lobstermen mandating the kind of rope they had to use on the ocean floor, there already was discussion among regulators about other possible gear requirements.
Now, two years after the ground line rules went into effect, state and federal officials are gearing up to consider new regulations concerning the rope fishermen use on their buoy lines. The reason the changes are being imposed is to prevent endangered whales from getting entangled in fishing gear.
The federal National Marine Fisheries Service has scheduled public meetings on the topic on four consecutive nights, July 11-14. The meetings, which will run from 6 to 9 p.m., will be held in order at Washington Academy in East Machias, Ellsworth City Hall, Rockland High School and Portland City Hall. Eleven other meetings will be held farther south along the East Coast later in July and August.
In anticipation of the Maine meetings, Maine Department of Marine Resources officials have been holding public meetings this week to gather feedback from fishermen about additional gear changes aimed at reducing the number of vertical fishing lines in the water column. What specific changes federal regulators will require are not yet known, DMR officials said, but state regulators want to make sure that whatever federal rules are imposed are acceptable to Maine fishermen.
“Unfortunately, the feds are not giving us a target,” Joseph Fessenden, chief of Maine Marine Patrol, told about 30 lobstermen and fishing representatives who gathered Wednesday night at Ellsworth High School. “We’re a little afraid that whatever we do won’t be enough.”
DMR officials also held similar meetings on Tuesday in Biddeford and on Thursday in Rockland.
According to DMR estimates, Maine lobstermen were paid a total of $313 million for the 94.7 million pounds of lobster they caught in 2010.
The gear change mandates are being propelled by the federal Endangered Species Act, which requires federal fishing regulators to take steps to help protect endangered marine species such as right and humpback whales.
In 2009, the federal National Marine Fisheries Service began requiring lobstermen to use sinking ground lines, which rest on the ocean bottom, in between traps that sit in a line on the ocean floor. Up until then, many fishermen chose to use floating lines, which are less expensive and less likely to get snagged or chafed on the bottom because they rise up off the ocean floor between traps.
Whale advocates objected to the use of floating rope because, they argued, it created underwater loops of rope that were more likely to snare whales as they dive toward the ocean bottom to feed.
Despite the ground line mandate, whale advocates have expressed dissatisfaction with the rule because gear that is set within roughly three miles of shore is exempt from the sinking ground line requirement and because it did not address the issue of buoy lines, which they say also pose an entanglement threat.
Critics on both sides have said that one consequence of the 2009 law is that it has led to more vertical lines being in the water. Some fishermen have said that to avoid using ground lines on a multi-trap trawl, which is a group of traps connected to one buoy on the end, they can set each trap separately, with each connected to its own buoy with a vertical line.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Wednesday that this is why the federal government is looking to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water. One fisherman at Wednesday’s meeting who declined to identify himself said fishermen should just say “no” to additional regulations, but McCarron said such a tactic might not have the result some fishermen might want.
She said the lobster association’s hope is that it is better to try to work with regulators than to tell them off and to refuse to cooperate.
“They have taken Maine lobster gear off entangled whales,” McCarron said. “That’s the reality of it.”
Even if Maine’s 6,000 licensed commercial lobstermen tell National Marine Fisheries Service to “stick it,” McCarron said, the agency still will take steps to enforce the Endangered Species Act.
“Nobody wants new regulations,” she said. “We need to be very realistic about what will happen. I would hate to see something worse handed down.”
Fessenden said that Maine is in a better position to negotiate with federal regulators about vertical line restrictions than it was to negotiate about the ground lines because since 2009, it has developed a statistical model that shows where fishing gear and whales are likely to come into contact. The model shows that the areas in Maine where whales and lobster gear are most likely to overlap are off eastern Washington County and off York County, though lobster buoys and whales can be found along the entire coast.
Fessenden said he hopes that federal regulators will recognize that some parts of the Gulf of Maine pose less of a statistical entanglement threat than others. He also stressed that the Marine Patrol is capable of imposing different vertical line regulations in different areas.
“Maine doesn’t need a one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.
Dave Heanssler, a Deer Isle lobsterman, said Wednesday that he tries to minimize the amount of vertical lines he has in the water when he sets his gear farther offshore during the winter. He fishes 300 traps, he said, but arranges them in 10-trap trawls so he only has 30 buoy lines in the water column.
Heanssler, 65, said he doesn’t want more regulations but by the time the undetermined rules go into place in 2014, he’ll probably be fishing less.
“I’m doing my part [now],” Heanssler said. “I’ll be easing back a bit, so I’ll be able to make it work.”
Federal regulators have indicated they will accept public comment on the issue until Sept. 12, 2011. They are expected to meet publicly in January 2012 in Providence, R.I., to discuss specific vertical line restrictions that might be imposed.