ELLSWORTH — “No
action” was the option advocated by a majority
of fishermen who showed up at a federal hearing
to comment on alternative regulations to prevent
the entanglement of endangered whales.
Fisheries Service staff hosted a crowd of about
180 at the Holiday Inn Monday night.
they received stressed the essential role of
floating or “poly” rope to the lobster fishery,
laid out suspicions that other causes of whale
deaths haven’t been regulated as severely and
conveyed genuine concern for the future of the
lobster industry in the face of most of the
The six possible
packages of regulations come in response to
continued entanglements and deaths of large
whale even after amendments to the 1997 Atlantic
Large Whale Take Reduction Plan were
implemented. They fill 800 pages and were
published in early March, more than a year later
than originally expected.
For all their
size and complexity, the alternatives were
reduced to a few simple points in discussions
about the future of Maine’s lobster industry.
everybody in this room is here because of the
float-rope issue,” said Jon Carter, chairman of
the Zone B Lobster Zone Council.
that followed confirmed his assertion. Nearly
every lobsterman who spoke said float rope was
essential for fishermen in Downeast Maine.
Nearly every one of the six alternatives would
ban floating rope on the groundlines that run
between lobster traps.
behind the ban is that floating rope can drift
up in the water column where foraging whales
could become entangled. Four of the National
Marine Fisheries Service’s six alternatives call
for sinking or neutrally buoyant groundlines,
which lie on the bottom. That keeps the ropes
out of the way of whales.
It also puts it
in the rocks along much of Maine’s coast.
Numerous lobstermen told National Marie
Fisheries Service whale experts David Gouveia
and Dianne Borggaard that sinking line just
doesn’t work because it chafes off or hangs up
on the rocky bottom.
“We would lose
more traps than we could ever keep up with,”
said Phil Torrey of Winter
“The bottom down
there looks about like the mountains down on the
island,” said Southwest
Harbor lobsterman Joseph Chalmers, in an effort to illustrate how different
local conditions are in this area compared to
Maine or Massachusetts.
probably put a lot of us out of business,” said
Carter in reference to a ban on floating rope.
pointed out the unintended consequences that
would undoubtedly follow such a ban.
Glenn Gilley of
Harbor cautioned about the proliferation of so–called “ghost traps” (lost traps
unattached to buoys).
“I can only
imagine the mess there would be on the bottom
after 10 years of fishing sink rope,” he said.
lobsterman Jack Merrill said fishermen unable to
use floating rope for groundlines would be
forced to fish with a single trap on each buoy.
That would at least double the number of lines
running all the way from the bottom to surface
buoys. “Isn’t that what we wanted to get away
from?” he asked.
Bob Williams of
Stonington was one of many who raised concerns
about the cost of replacing all the floating
line in the state. He estimated that $100
million would be needed if there were to be a
buyback program designed to remove all the float
At the opening
of the hearing, Gouveia said the service had
considered the possibility of implementing the
use of low-profile rope that would be specially
formulated to float in the water column at a
specific height from the bottom.
“What we don’t
know is how high that should be and what area
that should be,” he said. As a result, it wasn’t
included in one of the alternatives. He said
more research is needed.
“The agency did
think about this concept and we didn’t shut the
door on it,” he said.
III of Stonington asked that more research be
done on the foraging habits of whales, and how
low-profile line the state has been working on
as an option might be useful.
“Working gear is
a solution,” he said. He encouraged the service
to look to lobstermen for help in coming up with
anything that can be done collaboratively, more
than a few people are willing to do so,” he
Even if the
low-profile rope is developed, Merrill warned
that it probably couldn’t work everywhere. When
it came to supporting one of the alternatives,
he said Alternative 1 — to maintain the status
quo — isn’t really an option, since the whole
exercise is to come up with changes to it.
Looking at the
others, he said Alternative 5 — allowing for the
continued use of floating rope — is the least
offensive of the remaining choices.
A letter from
George Lapointe, Maine’s marine resources
commissioner, supported Alternative 5 because it
doesn’t close the door on floating groundlines.
But some expressed reservations about the
possible expansion of Seasonal Area Management
(SAM) areas along the coast. SAMs currently
exist off Massachusetts, and require specific
gear modifications to lobster and gillnet gear
during seasons when large whales are most likely
to be in the area.
that any expansion be done with respect to other
fishery closures; a review of recent right whale
entanglements; and other mortality and foraging
sources of mortality for endangered whales were
on the minds of many lobstermen.
a long list of other fisheries and human
interactions that right whales could come in
contact with in the course of migration.
gear accounts for a small fraction of the gear
they might encounter, he concluded.
Spencer Joyce of
Swan’s Island pointed to known whale deaths caused by shipping, and the possibility of
entanglements being exacerbated by whale
“What’s to say
they’re not driving a whale into the gear if
it’s happening?” he asked.
Burt Leach, who
fishes in Penobscot
Bay, asked whether the fisheries
service has a regular dialogue with the shipping
industry about whale mortality. “If you don’t
then we’re carrying the burden for everyone, and
that’s not fair.” He said.
letter stressed that the state wants assurance
the service doesn’t “apply management measures
to the fishing industry that are out of
proportion within the industry’s relative
One of the
details that appeared in almost all the
alternatives is the adoption of exemption lines
along the coast.
lines, lobster gear would not be subject to any
alterations to prevent whale entanglement. The
rationale is that whales don’t frequent those
many lobstermen supported the basic logic of
exemption lines, but asked that the lines
originally requested by the state be adopted in
favor of the reduced area proposed in the
alternatives. The promise of the exemption lines
was not incentive enough to entice lobstermen
away from Alternative 1. The majority of those
in attendance supported no change.
“We feel like
we’ve been doing the right things all along the
way, and now we’ve got our backs against a
wall,” Torrey said.
Jason Joyce of
Swan’s Island summed up much of the frustration in the room when he said, “I think a
line needs to be drawn that the federal
government can’t cross.”
proposed alternatives weren’t palatable to
fishermen, there was an undercurrent of
understanding and some compromise in the room.
“We just want to
go to work. We don’t want to kill a whale, but
we have to be able to fish,” Carter said.
others acknowledged that the problem of whale
entanglement exists and must be addressed but
not at the expense of the lobster industry.
“It might not be
pretty if we get things thrown at it that we
can’t live with,” Carter warned.
on the alternatives will be accepted through May
process, the National Marine Fisheries Service
will publish a specific proposed rule sometime
this summer, according to Borggaard.
There will be a
public comment period at that time. Following
that, a final rule will be published. New
provisions could be effective as early as 2006.