Lobstermen Call for No Change
Drawing the Line on Whale Entanglement

 By Aaron Porter


This diagram (not to scale) illustrates the different types of groundlines in question. The float rope is alleged to rise high enough above the bottom to entangle feeding whales. Low-profile rope, which is still in the development stages, is less buoyant than floating rope. It floats clear of the bottom, but low in the water column. Sinking rope lies on the bottom out of harm’s way as far as whales are concerned, but vulnerable to chafing and snags on rocky bottoms.

STAFF ILLUSTRATION BY CATHERINE MCKINNEY

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.

National Marine Fisheries Service staff hosted a crowd of about 180 at the Holiday Inn Monday night.

“We feel like we’ve been doing the right things all along the way, and now we’ve got our backs against a wall.”

— Lobsterman Phillip Torrey


Swan’s Island Lobsterman Spencer Joyce demonstrates some of the gear alterations lobstermen have already made to prevent whale entanglements.


Whale entanglement researcher Tora Johnson, author of a recent book on whale entanglement, responds to some of the proposed alternatives at Monday’s hearing.

STAFF PHOTOS BY AARON PORTER

The comments 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 proposed alternatives.

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.

“I’m sure everybody in this room is here because of the float-rope issue,” said Jon Carter, chairman of the Zone B Lobster Zone Council.

The testimonies 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.

The reasoning 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 Harbor.

“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 Southern Maine or Massachusetts.

“You would probably put a lot of us out of business,” said Carter in reference to a ban on floating rope.

Other lobstermen pointed out the unintended consequences that would undoubtedly follow such a ban.

Glenn Gilley of Southwest 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.

Cranberry Isles 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 rope.

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.

Stephen Robbins 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 working solutions.

“If there’s anything that can be done collaboratively, more than a few people are willing to do so,” he said.

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.

Lapointe urged that any expansion be done with respect to other fishery closures; a review of recent right whale entanglements; and other mortality and foraging data.

Those other sources of mortality for endangered whales were on the minds of many lobstermen.

Merrill recited a long list of other fisheries and human interactions that right whales could come in contact with in the course of migration.

Maine lobster 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 watchers.

“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.

Lapointe’s 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 impact.”

One of the details that appeared in almost all the alternatives is the adoption of exemption lines along the coast.

Inside those lines, lobster gear would not be subject to any alterations to prevent whale entanglement. The rationale is that whales don’t frequent those waters.

Lapointe and 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.”

While the 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.

Carter and 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.

Public comment on the alternatives will be accepted through May 16. 

Following that 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.

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