The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released in June new regulations designed to protect whales from being entangled in fishing gear by reducing the number of lobster buoys lines (vertical lines) in the water. The rules start to recognize the diversity of the fishery, but they also add to existing regulations, including a requirement that lobstermen use sinking groundlines that run between lobster traps. Taken together, the rules pose significant safety and operational challenges.

There are about 500 North Atlantic right whales, and while the population has nearly doubled over the past 20 years, the species remains highly endangered. By federal statutes, the new rules must help protect right whales by lowering the risk that they become entangled in fishing gear. 

The new rules require many lobstermen to “trawl up,” which means fishing more than one trap on each vertical line. This trawling-up requirement starts in state waters offshore of an exemption line, which exempts approximately 70 percent of state waters from federal whale rules. Those fishing outside the exemption line must have two traps per vertical line, and the trawling requirement increases to 10, 15 and even 20 traps per line farther offshore.

Additionally, any gear fished outside of the exemption line needs to have three 12-inch red marks near the top, middle, and bottom of the buoy line. Complying with the gear-marking requirement is going to be a challenge for fishermen who shift their gear between different water depths. The requirement itself doesn’t actually help whales; it only helps researchers understand where the gear was last being fished.

Fortunately, the rule establishes a quarter-mile buffer around Monhegan, Matinicus, and Criehaven islands, where single traps can be fished rather than pairs as required for similar locations.

But outside of this buffer zone, fishing pairs around the rocky ledges and islands will be more difficult and dangerous as the sinking groundline connecting the two traps is prone to getting caught on the bottom.

Many fishermen who fish near these ledges make their living by precisely placing their traps in small pockets between the rocks that are likely to contain lobsters. They have little margin for error along the rocky bottom in these areas. If they place two traps and one becomes hung up, the safety risk to them and their crew increases along with the chance of losing valuable gear and escalating their operational costs.

Frequently, these fishermen are young fishermen starting out in a skiff or older fishermen who are starting to slow down, but still rely on fishing for at least some of their income. Making it more difficult or expensive for these fishermen to fish hurts the sustainability of our fishing communities. 

With the buffer zones, it is gratifying to see the federal government recognize the challenges the rules pose to some fishermen. However, there are other islands and ledges at the mouth of Penobscot Bay, such as Metinic, Seal and Wooden Ball, that are not exempted. All of these islands should have been included in the buffer zone because the same safety and operational challenges also are found around these islands.

Even though these rules pose challenges for Maine fishermen, they aren’t as bad as some of the earlier versions NOAA considered. The Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and others worked hard to make sure that NOAA both understood the concerns being raised by Maine fishermen and had solid data to justify what was ultimately created—a more refined, area-specific and risk-based approach that better fits the diversity of Maine’s fishery and has the most stringent requirements offshore in places where interactions with whales are more likely. This hard work resulted in a trawling-up requirement that more closely matches fishing practices and allows for buffer zones, no seasonal closures and no new rules for fishermen who fish in exempted state waters. The rules also go into effect June 1, 2015 instead of this month, which means fishermen won’t have to modify their gear and paint their rope in the middle of the prime summer fishing season.

A few more changes from NOAA that recognized the diversity of this fishery and how fishermen actually fish, and that acknowledged the impacts of these rules to coastal communities would have made these rules less frustrating for fishermen without really impacting whale populations. 

Nick Battista is director marine programs at the Island Institute in Rockland, publisher of The Working Waterfront.