April 26, 2018
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Whale exemption line concerns fishermen

By Bill Trotter, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Federal officials have begun the process, with input from lobstermen, of considering possible restrictions on buoy lines, but some Maine fishermen say there’s another issue that they want to address with regulators.

Several fishermen at a Tuesday meeting about the buoy line issue said they are not happy with the exemption area National Marine Fisheries Service established when floating ground lines were banned in 2009. If federal regulators are going to place limits or requirements on the ropes fishermen use to connect buoys on the surface to traps on the bottom, many fishermen say, then all traps placed in state waters should be exempt from the mandates.

“I think that is something the state should immediately try to address,” Deer Isle fisherman Leroy Bridges said at Tuesday’s meeting.

Federal regulators banned the use of floating rope between traps, and are considering new restrictions on vertical fishing ropes in the water column, in order to protect endangered whales from entanglements. Despite new rules that have gone into effect, whales still are getting entangled in fishing lines — a few with fatal results — which violates the federal Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts.

The state’s jurisdiction over its coastal waters extends three miles out from shore, including offshore islands. To fish in waters beyond that boundary, fishermen must have the appropriate federal permits.

In 2009, when NMFS enacted the ban on floating ground lines between traps that are laid in a line on the ocean bottom, the agency came up with an exemption area that does not include all of the state’s coastal waters. The designated area extends roughly three miles offshore along the coast, but leaves out some areas where fishermen with state lobster licenses have traditionally set their traps. In eastern Washington County, the exemption line pinches in closer to shore, while in some areas part of or entire islands lie outside the exemption line. Fishermen who set traps off those islands, all of which are considered to be in Maine state waters, are banned from using sinking ropes between their traps.

If the exemption area was the same as the boundary of Maine state waters, fishermen have said, only fishermen who set traps in federal waters would be subject to federal mandates on using whale-safe gear, which many fishermen have said would be preferable to the current arrangement.

“Any rope that is in the water column is [viewed as] a risk,” David Gouveia, marine mammal coordinator for NMFS, told about 50 fishermen at the meeting.

Gouveia said the same exemption area for ground lines also would apply to buoy lines. The federal Take Reduction Team, a board of appointed members that helps set federal fishing policy, is scheduled to meet in Providence, R.I. early next year to take up the buoy line issue.

Many fishermen in Maine have said the sinking ground line ban has resulted in more gear getting lost because sinking ground lines get caught more frequently on rocky bottom than floating lines, which arc up toward the surface between traps.

As a result, fishermen say they are facing increased expenses by frequently having to replace the lost gear and more expensive sinking rope. It has created a different environmental problem by causing lost gear to pile up on the ocean bottom at a faster rate. It has led to more vertical lines being in the water because the vertical lines are currently exempt. And it poses a greater safety hazard because rope coming aboard is more likely to snap as caught gear gets hauled to the surface and fishermen are more likely to get pulled overboard by snagged traps.

“It’s a disaster,” Islesford fisherman Jack Merrill told Gouveia. “We know it. But we can’t change it.”

Having added gear restrictions put in place, this time on buoy lines, is likely to further aggravate their ability to earn a living, fishermen said. High fuel and bait costs and reduced worldwide demand for the tasty crustacean already have affected their financial bottom lines, they said.

“In the economic times we are in now, jobs are at a premium and you’re asking us to make an extreme sacrifice,” Bridges said.

Bar Harbor fisherman Jon Carter said he feels less pessimistic about the approach federal regulators are taking to consider new buoy line restrictions than he did about the ground line rule process, mainly because federal regulators seem willing to be more flexible. The ground line ban was enacted with a one-size-fits-all approach, he said, but buoy line restrictions might be tailored to meet the different conditions different fishermen face up and down the coast.

But Carter said fishermen cannot be expected to continually meet ever-more restrictive mandates about how they operate their businesses.

“We’re almost at the point where we can’t do any more,” he said.

As for revisiting the exemption area for whale-safe gear, Gouveia and Norman Olsen, commissioner of Maine Department of Marine Resources, each cautioned fishermen on Tuesday to be careful about what issues they want the federal Take Reduction Team to consider. Some members of the team, which includes residents and whale advocates, have argued that the boundary between where whale-safe gear must be used and where fishing gear is exempt should be moved closer to shore, not further out into deeper water.

“In all reasonableness, it should [move] out,” Olsen said, “[but] there are factors that the state of Maine by itself cannot control.”

Federal officials were expected to hold similar meetings Wednesday night at Rockland High School and Thursday night at Portland City Hall. Both meetings were scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

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