A lobsterman tosses a buoy onto his boat before heading out to set traps for the upcoming summer season, Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Portland, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

With more pending lobster gear restrictions looming over Maine’s most valuable and visible fishery, state and industry officials are working to find ways to lessen the economic damage those restrictions will have.

Maine’s lobster fishery has adapted a few times over the years as federal regulators have imposed gear restrictions, in 2009 and again in 2014, aimed at helping to prevent endangered whales from getting tangled in ropes that connect lobster traps on the ocean floor to buoys at the surface.

Now, the state Department of Marine Resources is using federal funds to collect data about vertical ropes in the gulf, and to develop a model to determine the fishing industry’s current use of the lines. Department officials have said this month they are hoping to use the model to predict the conservation benefits of new proposed regulations, which federal officials have said likely will call for at least a 50 percent reduction in vertical trap lines in the water.

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, said Thursday that the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration still is working on drafting new rules on lobster gear — which the Maine Lobstermen’s Association voiced concerns about during President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Maine.

He added that on Thursday, the Pew Charitable Trusts filed a petition with the federal Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, requesting that the agency put in place emergency restrictions while NOAA comes up with permanent rules.

“It is a bit of a curveball,” Keliher said, adding that Pew has proposed prohibiting all vertical trap lines in four areas off Massachusetts and Maine during certain parts of the year to prevent contact between lobster gear and right whales. He said the commerce department doesn’t have to grant the request, and that he hopes it decides not to dedicate staff time to addressing it while NOAA works on drafting its new rules.

Whale advocates say too many North Atlantic right whales get tangled in fishing gear, in violation of federal laws that protect them, while many lobstermen say their gear is not to blame and that further restrictions could threaten their industry, which generates roughly half a billion dollars in direct fishing revenue in Maine each year. The North Atlantic right whale population — now estimated at slightly more than 400 — has declined by nearly 6 percent since January 2017, and 85 percent of the critically endangered species shows signs of having been entangled in rope at some point, according to federal officials.

The expected latest round of restrictions — fueled by lawsuits filed by whale advocates who say federal regulators are not doing enough to prevent entanglements — will be determined this summer and put into effect next year. According to Keliher, NOAA’s proposed new rules are expected to be announced sometime next month and then followed by a 90-day comment period.

In addition to collecting data on when, where and how much vertical line is used in Maine’s lobster fishery, the state also has been exploring whether it might be possible to reduce the amount of fishing gear in the water without significantly reducing the fishery’s yield.

Studies that have looked at trap usage off Monhegan Island in 2005, and more recently in Canadian waters off Nova Scotia, show that it is possible for lobstermen to set fewer traps in an area, haul them to the surface less frequently, and still harvest an amount of lobster similar to what they caught without the reductions.

State fisheries officials also are working on a project to test weak points in lobster fishing gear so that ropes will be more likely to break and then sink when whales run into them.

Beyond the whale lawsuits, lobster fishermen are facing the prospects of a declining catch caused by warming ocean temperatures, and greater difficulties in exporting their catch due to Chinese tariffs on the crustacean and a coronavirus-related drop in demand. To address these concerns, seafood marketing officials have sought to reinforce the lobster’s status as a luxury food, in order to boost and sustain the price for the product, and to increase demand for Maine lobster across the United States, which is unaffected by volatile trade relationships overseas.

Such measures could help fishermen maintain their income levels while catching fewer lobsters, industry officials have said.

The state is expected this year to receive more than $200,000 in federal funds for the vertical line data collection project, bringing the total federal money it has received to more than $700,000, according to NOAA officials.

The money comes from NOAA’s Species Recovery Grant Program, which is intended to help animals that are protected under the Endangered Species Act, such as North Atlantic right whales.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Bill Trotter

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....