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Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, June 13, 2019 and The Weekly Packet, June 13, 2019
Lobstermen tackle ways to adapt to whale protection rules
DMR Commissioner meets with Zone C council

by Anne Berleant

Protecting the North Atlantic right whale while minimizing the impact to commercial lobstermen is being discussed up and down the coast, as Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher meets with lobster zone councils this month.

The Zone C council met June 6, in Deer Isle, where Keliher and about 100 local lobstermen discussed measures put forth by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) to reduce vertical lines by up to 50 percent.

North Atlantic right whales, listed as an endangered species since 1970 under federal law, can get tangled in the vertical, or end lines that attach lobster traps to trawl lines, with fatal results.

Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) showed 20 right whale deaths in 2017 and 2018 but Zone C Council member David Tarr, who also sits on the state Lobster Advisory Council, said that knowing where those deaths occurred is important data.

“I honestly feel the whales ensnared haven’t been in Maine waters, but we can’t prove it,” he said after the meeting. “It’s really frustrating.”

Tarr said that gear found on ensnared whales is bigger than the gear used by Maine fishermen. One way to show this is to require color-coded tags on end lines to help identify where the whale became ensnared, inshore or offshore Maine or in Massachusetts or Canadian waters.

Currently, only offshore Maine lobstermen use end line tags, but the same color tag is used in several lobster fishing areas, making it impossible to identify where a whale became ensnared.

To meet the 50 percent end line reduction, Keliher outlined a few options, like weaker end lines that a whale can break free from, increasing the number of traps on each end line, and reducing the number of traps each lobsterman can fish.

All come with their own problems, as far as the lobstermen are concerned, whether they fish inshore or offshore, although an exemption for lobstermen fishing one-quarter mile from shore is under consideration.

“It’s just a very complex issue,” Tarr said. “It absolutely will affect our livelihood. It’s a change in how we do business.”

But, he added, taking no action at all is not an option, either.

The line reduction measure put forward by the TRT is driven by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, both federal laws, and action will be taken by NOAA if Maine fails to come up with a plan. Through meeting with the different councils, Keliher aims to develop a reduction plan to meet the TRT goal.

“As the lead management authority for American lobster, we have a responsibility to ensure the viability of the lobster fishery,” Keliher said after the TRT announcement earlier this year.

He will return to the seven Maine lobster councils, probably in August, after lobstermen have reviewed the options presented.