Maine Submits Right Whale Proposal to NMFS

Augusta - In response to requirements under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has submitted a proposal for regulatory changes to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in advance of federal rule making.

The proposal includes measures which reduce 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 rare event an entanglement occurs. The proposal also includes measures that improve the data collected about the Maine lobster fishery which will enable regulators to develop more targeted, effective measures in the future. The proposal includes a provision which allows Maine the flexibility to develop regional measures that achieve conservation benefits equivalent to those in the plan. This was included in recognition of the unique fishing practices, differing oceanographic conditions, and safety concerns along Maine's coast.

DMR sought input from industry in ten public meetings over the summer. With this input, and further analysis of the data, DMR concluded that the original advisory plan proposed by the Take Reduction Team (TRT) in April would have placed the largest burden on inshore waters where whales rarely venture. The impact of the TRTs advisory plan would have created significant safety issues as well as economic hardship for Maines inshore fishermen while providing minimal benefits to right whales. Given analysis indicated risk increases with distance from shore, with most risk occurring outside state waters, the Department focused management measures, including vertical line reductions, offshore.

The elements of the plan include:

Vertical Line Reductions

Shore to Exemption Line - Status quo

Established in 2007, the Maine exemption line, which encompasses approximately 70 percent of state waters, designates inshore waters where right whale sightings are extremely rare. The department cited concerns for fishermen safety and the economic impact of trawling up requirements on small boats that fish inside the exemption line.

Exempted Waters Line to Three Miles from Shore - Minimum trawl length of three traps per single endline

A three-trap trawl considers safety concerns of small boat, state-waters fishermen with the goal of reducing the number of endlines and the associated risk to right whales.

Three Miles to Six Miles from Shore - Minimum trawl length of eight traps per two endlines, or four traps per single endline.

Longer trawls recognize higher whale sightings in federal waters while the flexibility to fish four versus eight traps supports diversity of fishing practices and ensures equivalent conservation value.

Six Miles to Twelve Miles from Shore - Minimum trawl length of fifteen traps per two endlines, or eight traps per single endline.

Flexibility in trawl configuration provide increased whale protection and considers fishermen safety and boat capacity, as some fishing operations can not safely haul and stow fifteen traps on a boat.

Twelve Miles from Shore to the Lobster Management Area 1/3 Boundary - Minimum trawl length of twenty-five traps per two endlines

Twenty-five-trap trawl length recognizes the increased risk posed by vertical lines offshore as well as the limits on the capacity of fishing vessels in the area. This trawl length is also enforceable since it would be nearly impossible for Maines Marine Patrol to safely haul longer trawls.

1,700-Pound Weak Points - Studies show that rope that breaks at 1,700 pounds of pressure will allow an entangled whale to break free. Including a weak point in exempted waters ensures that, in the rare event a right whale enters exempted waters and gets entangled, the encounter will not result in a serious injury or mortality.

State Waters - A single 1,700-pound weak point will be required half way down vertical lines in the Maine lobster fishery.

3-mile line out to 12 miles - Two 1,700-pound weak points will be required in the top half of all vertical lines

Federal Waters (outside 12 miles) - One 1,700-pound weak point one-third of the way down the vertical line in the Maine lobster fishery outside 12 miles from shore.

Gear Marking - At present, all Northeast trap/pot gear is identified by a red mark. Maines 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.

Exempt Waters (shoreward of the exemption line) - A purple Maine-only gear mark is required at the top, middle, and bottom of the vertical line. The top mark is 36" in length and must be in the top two fathoms of the line. The middle and bottom marks are 12 in length.

Non-exempt waters - A purple Maine-only gear mark replaces the existing 12-inch red marks at the top, middle, and bottom of the vertical line. In addition, a 6 green mark and a 36 purple mark, in the top two fathoms of the line will be required.

Gear mark requirements within exempt waters and non-exempt state waters have been finalized by the adoption of state regulations.

Harvester Reporting

All Maine Commercial Lobster License Holders - Move the Maine lobster fishery to 100 percent harvester reporting

Currently 10 percent of Maine lobster license holders are required to complete harvester reporting which provides precise estimates of catch; however, it does not provide the level of information on fishing effort or location needed for current right whale discussions. Increased harvester reporting will close this data gap and provide a complete picture of activity in the Maine lobster fishery.

Electronic Tracking on Federal Vessels

Maine recognizes that more work needs to be done regarding vessel tracking and is recommending that NOAA work with industry to understand and address fishermen concerns around tracking technologies and costs.

Request for Conservation Equivalency and an Individual Safety Program

A keystone to Maine's proposal is for the allowance of conservation equivalency within the proposed rule. The provision would allow the states lobster management zones to use their authority to implement measures that achieve equivalent conservation outcomes. This would enable zones to consider the diversity of the fleet and address safety issues that arise when trawling up and using weak points in vertical lines.

Maine is also asking for the flexibility to address safety concerns arising from the federal regulations on an individual basis. For example, some fishermen will not have a boat large enough to safely comply with the 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.

For a copy of the plan and appendices, visit the Maine DMR Lobster webpage.