The fragile deep-sea corals that populate the canyon walls and basins in the Gulf of Maine provide habitat for many species of fish as well as baby lobster, crabs and squid. But the New England Fisheries Management Council has concluded that the northeast coral beds are threatened when they are disturbed by commercial fishing operations and is weighing new restrictions that could affect Maine.
The council held a public hearing in Ellsworth Thursday night, where lobstermen spoke in support of a plan that protects coral colonies while still allowing them to haul their traps.
Most of the lobstermen who spoke agree that the coral beds in the Gulf of Maine play an important role in the overall health of the marine ecosystem. And most, such as Cranberry Isles fisherman Jack Merrill, think that Maine lobstermen and the coral beds have been getting along well for decades.
“It is evident to me that the marine corals in these zones appear to be thriving, which means that they are successfully coexisting with the trap fishery that has been there for many years,” he says.
The major coral beds are located off the Georges Banks. There are two areas about 25 miles off the Maine coast that have been identified as coral protection zones: the Outer Schoodic Ridge off the southeast Hancock County coast and Mount Desert Rock off Mount Desert Island.
The area is regularly fished, and Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher says he supports an alternative plan that would prohibit trawlers from working the ocean bottom in the two targeted regions, but would also allow lobster trap fishing in the regions.
“Lobster fishing is the economic backbone of the Down East coastal communities, and each of these proposed coral protection areas represents an important fishing ground for over 50 vessels from approximately 15 communities, and many of these vessels fish these areas throughout the majority of the year,” he says.
Some industry groups, such as the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, say banning lobstering in these areas would have a $9 million effect on the local economy, and that it would only push fishermen into other areas, where gear conflicts could erupt. Hilton Turner, president of the Down East Lobstermen’s Association, says it would be best to minimize the potential for territory disputes.
“Fishermen that usually fish around each other on a regular basis are aware of their fishing styles, such as how they lay out their gear,” he says. “When forced to fish around other fishermen whose practices they’re not familiar with, this can lead to gear conflicts, which, of late, has become a problem as it is in these areas. We really don’t think we want to add more fuel to this fire.”
And lobstermen and DMR officials say if lobstermen are forced to move their gear into other areas, that could create a new potential danger to endangered right whales.
“What that’s going to create is a wall of rope around those areas that is not going to be good for right whales,” says David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “And we’ve worked our asses off for the last 20 years to try and accommodate fishing and right whales, and this would be a disaster for the fishermen and the whales.”
The New England Fisheries Management Council is scheduled to issue a final decision in Portland on June 22.