Notice from Commissioner Keliher: Update on Federal Whale Rules

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As many of you know, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (TRT) met last week and recommended broad measures that included a target to remove 50 percent of endlines from the Gulf of Maine. The remaining endlines will also need to be made safer so that, if a whale does come in contact with a line, the rope will break.  

The outcome for Maine’s lobster industry could have been far worse. Many TRT participants did push for a phase-in of ropeless fishing over five or ten years, large scale closed areas (including two in Maine), and weak rope across the entire fishery. In the end, Maine delegates were successful in pushing back on those proposals, and the final recommendations did not include approaches that were either unproven (ropeless) or shown not to be warranted (closures and weak rope all the way to the bottom or in areas with low risk).

Maine’s TRT delegates have also been clear from the beginning that trap cuts do not result in significant conservation benefits for right whales, so the TRT did not focus on proposals that included trap cuts. I will be working with my staff over the coming weeks to consider a range of draft options to achieve the target reductions that may work for Maine fishermen. 

I realize that these measures will still have a sizable impact on your businesses, but the lobster fishery continues to face pressure from several environmental non-governmental organizations that don’t believe that these reductions go far enough. Just this week, the Ellsworth American reported on the TRT results and the following quote certainly makes clear their position. “Reducing and weakening the lines in the water is a start, but we need to go much further, much faster,” Erica Fuller, senior staff attorney at CLF, “Appropriate closures and ropeless fishing need to be part of the solution.”

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has also been looking at this issue with the possibility of implementing additional protections. However, due to the significant conservation benefits likely to be achieved by the measures the TRT has proposed, ASMFC has tabled any action and will wait to see if the risk to right whales has been fully addressed.

So where does this leave us? I plan to use the Zone Councils and Lobster Advisory Council to vet draft proposals that the department will develop to achieve the 50% reduction in endlines. We will also discuss other measures, including the recommendation to weaken the top 75% of endlines in federal waters, as well as new gear marking schemes and reporting requirements. I will be scheduling meetings, likely in June, to incorporate industry input on how the objectives outlined by the TRT can be achieved. I strongly believe that the best plans will be informed by input from industry.

These conversations will be difficult and sacrifices will be necessary. But I am confident that your input will result in a plan that accomplishes the necessary conservation objectives and sustains Maine’s vital lobster industry.

As for the 2019 fishing year nothing has changed regarding laws or regulations. At this time, I’m not anticipating the federal agency making final decisions that will impact your business for at least a year.

I will continue to provide updates as additional information is available.

Patrick Keliher
Maine Department of Marine Resource