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Updated: January 6, 2020

Maine submits right whale proposal to federal regulators

File Photo / Laurie Schreiber The Department of Marine Resources last week gave regulators a proposal aimed at protecting both the North Atlantic right whale and Maine's lobster fishing communities, which consist mostly of small boats that fish inshore.

In its latest move to protect both the endangered North Atlantic right whale and Maine's lobster fishing communities, the state calls for maintaining current rules about endlines within state waters.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources submitted the proposal to the National Marine Fisheries Service last week.

The goal is to reduce what the agency called “the presumed risk” of an entanglement by North Atlantic right whales in lobster gear from occurring and minimize the potential of serious injury and mortality in the event an entanglement occurs. 

The state plan builds on Maine's so-called “exemption line.” Established in 2007, the exemption line is a coast-long boundary 3 miles out from shore. It delineates mostly state waters — where right whale sightings have been shown to be extremely rare. Fishermen within the exempted area currently fish a minimum of three traps attached to a single endline, or vertical line.

The state plan calls for that area continue to be exempted from proposals to add more traps per endline, citing concerns for fishermen safety and the economic impact of trawling up requirements on small boats that fish inside the exemption line.

For fishermen setting traps beyond the 3-mile line, the plan calls for increased numbers of traps, based on distance from shore and whether the fisherman uses one or two endlines.

Other measures in the state plan include:

• Incorporate 1,700-pound “weak points” in endlines. These are points that are deliberately built into the rope in order to make it weak enough for an entangled whale to break out.

• Incorporate a system of purple markings into endlines so that, if an whale does get entangled, it can be determined whether the gear comes from a Maine fisherman. At present, all Northeast trap gear is identified by a red mark. Maine's adoption of a state-specific mark will help managers more accurately determine the origin of gear involved in entanglement and develop more targeted protection measures.

• Require all Maine lobster fishermen to report their catches and other data points such as fishing effort and location; currently, only 10% of Maine lobstermen are required to complete harvester reporting. Increased harvester reporting is expected to provide a complete picture of activity in the Maine lobster fishery.

• Maine recognizes that more work needs to be done regarding vessel tracking and is recommending that the federal government work with the industry to address fishermen’s concerns around tracking technologies and costs.

• Maine is also asking for flexibility to address safety concerns that may arise on an individual basis. For example, some fishermen will not have a boat large enough to safely comply with new trawling-up requirements, so Maine is requesting the flexibility to develop an individual plan to achieve the same risk reduction at a lower trawling-up scenario.

The department received input for the plan from the industry at 10 public meetings last summer. 

With the input, and further analysis of the data, the department concluded that an initial plan, proposed by the federally convened Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team in April and including additional numbers of traps per endline in inshore waters, would have placed the largest burden on inshore waters where whales rarely venture.The DMR believes the initial plan would have created significant safety issues as well as economic hardship for Maine’s inshore fishermen while providing minimal benefits for the whales. 

The state’s analysis indicated the risk of right whale entanglement increases with distance from shore, with most risk occurring outside state waters, so the department focused management measures offshore.

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