EAST MACHIAS, Maine — Although there were more than 20 lobstermen at Monday night’s meeting with the National Marine Fisheries Service, it was Maine’s Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Norman Olsen whose words carried most of the weight.
Representatives from the service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were in town for the first of 15 Atlantic coastal meetings to determine new policies to reduce the risk allegedly posed by lobster gear to Atlantic large whales — right, humpback and fin whales.
David Gouveis, director of the marine mammal division of NOAA, said that although the number of large whales is increasing in Maine’s cold waters, the number of entanglements and mortalities along the coast is increasing. He suggested that the only way to reduce entanglements is to reduce the number of lines in the water.
This could involve seasonal closures of the fishery or limiting the number of trap lines, according to NOAA, or the use of “whale safe” rope thickness, according to the fishermen.
Commissioner Olsen, however, expressed his concern that Maine’s ideas wouldn’t be given enough study.
“We cannot be offering measure after measure only to be told that we have not hit the target. I want to make sure that if Maine makes five suggestions, we know ahead of the draft ruling exactly what weight Maine’s suggestions will be given,” Olsen said.
Olsen said he would not accept a procedure that dismisses Maine’s suggestions without proper study and weight.
“Before we submit anything,” Olsen told Gouveia, “we need an idea of the measurement of these proposals. We need to make sure that what we come up with has a credible value. We want them scientifically grounded and fully tested so they cannot be challenged.”
Gouviea, however, said that calling an unscheduled Northeast meeting of the NOAA team studying the whale risk would cost more than $160,000 and is not in the federal budget.
“I’m very leery now,” Olsen replied. “I see a major problem coming.”
Gouviea said that he “certainly got the message” that the commissioner wants a meeting to clarify Maine’s suggestions. “We’ll do our best,” he said.
In his written comments, submitted last June to NOAA, Olsen said regulatory measures since 1997 — including the elimination of floating lines, break-off buoy links, and the use of sinking line — have cost Maine’s fishermen thousands of dollars. The sink line requirement alone, which went into effect in April 2009, reportedly has caused enormous gear losses.
Olsen said that targets for whale protection are “unrealistic and ungrounded in science.” He added that the protection model is not capable of assessing the impacts of the many risk-reduction measures other than removal of all lines from the water.
During Monday’s meeting, fishermen discussed one suggestion of marking lines with various colors to designate both Maine fishermen and those within a certain zone. This could help prove that Maine lobstermen are not responsible for the whale entanglements, one said.
Olsen said he will attend each of the four meetings in Maine, part of a series of meetings he and a group of 14 fishermen he appointed earlier this year have already been conducting to discuss proposals.
“We are not going to accept a one-size-fits-all solution,” Olsen said.