Fragile lines, remote controlled traps: Maine lobster fishermen must contend with an onslaught of new rules

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Last week, federal officials announced they intend to deploy high-tech fishing gear on as many as 100 New England lobster and crab boats.

It’s the latest step in leading Maine’s lobster fleet into a new era as an onslaught of potentially transformative federal regulations to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales goes into effect.

At a Damariscotta River wharf full of bright yellow lobster traps, boat captain Eben Wilson and his stern man Daniel Barter deftly pull apart strands of colored rope, then tie plastic connectors between them.

“It’s like a round link and we splice it on either side with a piece of purple, a solid purple line and a solid green line, those are the two colors we need to mark our end line up and down with, that’s Maine- specific,” says Wilson.

The plastic links are designed to rupture under 1,700 pounds of pressure—ideally strong enough to pull up a set of lobster traps from the ocean floor, but weak enough that a tangled right whale could free itself without injury. And if a whale is found entangled, the colored line could help identify where that happened.

The links and tags are mandated by federal laws that went into effect last month. The first step came during the winter when a nearly 1,000-square-mile strip of Maine fishing grounds was closed to traditional lobster fishing gear for several months. Federal regulators say there is an increased risk of whales passing through and becoming entangled in vertical buoy lines during these months.

As a further step, boats fishing further offshore now also need to add more traps per line to reduce the total amount of vertical line in the water. It’s a practice called “trawl”. Wilson says he can work with the new configurations.

Fred Bever

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Maine public

Plastic links engineered to break under 1,700 pounds of pressure – ideally strong enough to pull up a lobster trap but weak enough to break free of an entangled right whale.

“Now you know that works down here, but for people further down east where there’s more tide coming out of the Bay of Fundy and they’re fishing bigger buoys to even out the tides, it’s going to be a whole different conversation for them because there just is more strain on her leashes. That’s part of the problem here, that it’s a blanket statement for the regulations and doesn’t take into account diversity in the fishery,” says Wilson.

Stonington lobsterman Thomas McGuire is one of these Downeast fishermen. “More traps, weaker rope. I’m no Einstein, but I can see that this equation doesn’t work very well,” he says.

At 32 feet, his boat is on the smaller side of vessels operating far offshore in federal waters.

Last year, as the new rules were being drafted, he decided to give up the federal permit he bought from his father-in-law.

“I didn’t see it as something I wanted to do,” he says. “I think for the people who are on the boat size limit, it’s going to be difficult to meet those requirements and it’s going to be dangerous.”

McGuire continues to fish in coastal state waters. But industry advocates say it’s a loss of fishing grounds – and fishing heritage – that could accelerate as the government adds more whale protection rules and federal judges launch lawsuits calling for more immediate action.

“I think the next five years will be difficult from a lobster industry perspective,” said Patrick Keliher, commissioner for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

“The reality of additional risk reduction cannot be achieved with more trawls and weaker ropes. You cannot weaken the rope; it would not be safe. You can’t drag anymore; it would be ‘I’m not sure,'” he says.

State and industry lawyers are arguing fiercely in court that the government’s risk models of the Lobster fleet are scientifically flawed. And state legislatures recently allocated $1 million to help the Maine Lobstering Union and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association pay legal costs.

But whale advocates have had some court wins recently, and Keliher says that should the industry continue to lose in court, catch limits and more fisheries closures will be on the way.

“Until now, the industry has been very reluctant to lose traps. But I think it will come at some point, whether they like it or not.

According to Keliher, talks are beginning on how to keep the industry intact in an upcoming era of transformation. Some research suggests that even with reduced fishing effort, there are ways to remain profitable.

But Virginia Olsen of the Maine Lobstering Union, which also fishes from Stonington, says the conversation isn’t just about making do with less.

“What does Maine look like without fishermen in every bay? Because there will be winners and losers,” says Olsen. “And what’s Maine like if you can’t take on a fishery that you’ve passed down for generations and pass on that fishery?” What does it look like in our schools, what does it look like in our and our cities? communities?”

A small number of lobster fishermen in Maine and elsewhere are taking a serious look at a technological solution that conservationists and some scientists see as the best hope for whale-industry coexistence: so-called ropeless, or on-demand gear.

Various versions are being developed: most rely on the use of GPS or satellite trackers to mark and locate the location where a trap or net has been set, and an audible signal to trigger a flotation system using a rope line or bringing the device itself to the surface.

“So I thought I’d be open to trying it and seeing it, just to learn whether it sucks or not,” says Eben Nieuwkirk, a southern Maine fisherman.

This winter he tried one of the gill net systems for catching bottom fish. He says satellite pingers worked well — but anything else was expensive, time-consuming, and prone to failure.

“I think I had seven sessions or eight sessions. After six months, none worked anymore. If you consider I have buoys that have been in the ocean for three years now, they are still floating. And my maintenance for them is like nothing,” he says.

He says the technology is years away from being practical and cost-effective. But it might work quite well in some situations, he adds, and he wants to keep experimenting with it.

Engineers working on the project — the first ever to use gillnet equipment — say it has yielded valuable lessons and that some Maine lobster fishermen are also seeing some success. But they are reluctant to speak for the record for fear of harassment from other lobster fishermen who see the technology as a false hope.

But there is one Massachusetts lobsterman who says his best hope is to continue fishing in areas that regulators may shut down to protect whales.

“I don’t want to change. But I have a family. I’ve been doing this my whole life. I’m a third-generation lobsterman,” says Marc Palumbo, who fishes in Sandwich, Massachusetts.

“I’m confident that when the draconian measures are in place and they say, ‘There’s no more buoy fishing,’ I can still do my job,” he says. “And second, to be perfectly honest, I think it’s the right thing to do. We can solve this problem. You can solve it.”

But in general, Maine lobster fishermen remain opposed to the idea, even if they just try it.

“It’s a red line for me. I refuse to use it,” says Wilson, the East Boothbay lobster dealer.

He fears the equipment would be too expensive, complex and bulky, an option only for the largest boats. He foresees an industry cleanup that could trap him despite his love of the job.

“It’s hard to match, really hard to match what we have. And to say I’d run away with no rope gear, I would. Because it’s not the answer, it’s not the answer for this fishery,” he says.

And there’s a high-tech/low-tech solution that’s sparking new interest among industry stakeholders and whale advocates — the use of radio frequency ID tags to track traps, indicated by horizontal lines on the surface of the whale seabed, and then pulling a grappling hook along the bottom to catch the lines and haul them up.

Fishermen are already using grapples to recover lost gear, but it’s not a legal fishing technique in Maine — and its practicality can be limited, especially in areas with dense gear inventories.

Federal officials working to support the development of the on-demand technology say it’s at least five years away from commercial launch. That could be too late for some Maine lobster fishermen, who could soon lose access to a resource that has fed them for more than a century.

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