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Breakable lines, remote control traps: Maine lobstermen grapple with an onslaught of new rules

Maine Daily Life
Robert F. Bukaty
A lobster boat carries a heavy loads of traps as it motors out to sea near Peaks Island. Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Portland, Maine. Lobstermen in Maine have been highly critical of Gov. Janet Mills' offshore wind plan which they say could have a negative impact their livelihoods.

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

It's the latest move to bring Maine's lobster fleet into a new era, as an onslaught of potentially transformative federal regulations intended to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales take effect.

At a Damariscotta river wharf piled high with gleaming yellow lobster traps, boat captain Eben Wilson and his sternman, Daniel Barter, deftly pull strands of colored rope apart, then knot plastic links in between.

"It's like a round link and we splice into that either side with a piece of purple, solid purple line and solid green line, which are the two colors that we have to mark up and down our end-line with, that's Maine specific," Wilson says.

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

The links and markings are required by federal rules that went into effect last month. The first step came in the winter, when a nearly 1,000-square-mile swath of fishing grounds off Maine was closed for several months to traditional lobster fishing gear. Federal regulators say there is an elevated risk that whales could pass through there during those months, and become entangled in vertical buoy lines.

In another step, boats fishing farther offshore now also must add more traps per line, to reduce the overall amount of vertical rope in the water. It's a practice called "trawling up." Wilson says he thinks he can work with the new configurations.

fred lobster traps.jpg
Fred Bever
Maine Public
Plastic links that are engineered to break under 1,700 pounds of pressure -- strong enough, ideally, to pull up a lobster trap, but weak enough to break free from an entangled right whale.

"Now you know that works down here but for guys farther Down East where there's more tide coming out of the Bay of Fundy and they fish bigger buoys to make up for the tides, it's going to be a very different conversation for them because there's just more load on their lines. That's part of the issue here is that it's a blanket statement across for the regulations and it doesn't account for the diversity in the fishery," Wilson says.

Stonington lobsterman Thomas McGuire is one of those Downeast fishermen. "More traps, weaker rope. I'm no Einstein but I see that equation not working very well," he says.

At 32-feet, his boat is on the smaller side of the vessels that work federal waters far offshore.

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

"I didn't see it to be something that I wanted to do," he says. "I think for the folks that are on the fence for marginal boat size, it's going to be tough to meet those requirements, and dangerous."

McGuire continues to fish in state waters closer to shore. But industry advocates say it's a loss of fishing ground — and fishing heritage — that could accelerate as the government adds more whale protection rules, and federal judges act on lawsuits seeking more immediate action.

"I think the next five years from the lobster industry perspective is going to be difficult," says Patrick Keliher, Commissioner of Maine's Department of Marine Resources.

"The realities of additional risk reduction can't be achieved with more trawling up and more weak rope. You can't make the rope any weaker; it wouldn't be safe. You can't trawl up any more; it wouldn't be safe," he says.

The state and industry advocates are fiercely arguing in court that the government's models of risk posed by the lobster fleet are scientifically flawed. And state lawmakers recently allocated $1 million to help the Maine Lobstering Union and the Maine Lobstermen's Association defray legal costs.

But advocates for the whales have notched some recent court victories, and Keliher says that should the industry continue to lose in court, trap limits and more fishery closures are likely on their way.

"The industry has been very reluctant to want to lose traps. But I think at some point it's coming whether they like it or not. Because the federal government is not backing down on additional risk reductions with this fishery," he says.

Keliher says conversations are beginning about how to keep the industry intact through a looming era of transformation. Some research indicates that even with reduced fishing effort there are ways to remain profitable.

Fred Bever
Maine Public
East Boothbay lobsterman Eben Wilson (right) and sternman Daniel Barter weave plastic links into trap rope.

But Virginia Olsen of the Maine Lobstering Union, who also fishes out of Stonington, says the conversation isn't just about how to get by with less.

"What does Maine look like without fishermen in each cove? Because there's going to be winners and losers," Olsen says. "And what does Maine look like when you can't take a fishery that you've passed down for generations and continue to pass that fishery down? What does that look like in our schools, what does that look like in our towns and our communities?"

A small number of lobstermen in Maine and elsewhere are giving a serious look at a technological fix that conservationists and some scientists see as the best hope for whales and the industry to co-exist: so-called ropeless or on-demand gear.

Various versions are being developed: Most rely on using GPS or satellite trackers to mark and find the location where a trap or net was set, and an acoustic signal to trigger a floatation system that brings a rope-line or the gear itself to the surface.

"So I thought I'd be open to trying it and see, just to learn, see if it sucks or not," says Eben Nieuwkirk, a fisherman based in southern Maine.

This winter he tried out one of the systems with gillnets, for catching groundfish. He says satellite pingers worked well — but everything else was expensive, time-consuming, and prone to failure.

"I think I had seven units or eight units. After six months, not one of them was working anymore. If you think about, I have buoys that have been in the ocean right now for three years, they're still floating. And my maintenance to them is like nothing," he says.

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

Engineers working on the project — the first ever using gillnet gear — say it has produced valuable insights, and that some lobstermen in Maine are seeing some success as well. But they are reluctant to speak for the record, fearful of harassment from other lobstermen who see the technology as a false hope.

But there is one Massachusetts lobsterman who says it's his best hope for continuing to fish areas that regulators might close to protect whales.

"I don't want to change. But I got a family. I been doing this my whole life. I'm a third-generation lobster-fisherman," says Marc Palumbo, who fishes out of Sandwich, Massachusetts.

"I feel confident that if the draconian measures took place, and they said, 'There's no more fishing with buoys,' I can still perform my job," he says. "And second of all, 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's lobstermen remain opposed to the idea, even to just trying it out.

"It's a red line for me. I refuse to use it," says Wilson, the East Boothbay lobsterman.

He fears that the gear would be too costly, complex, and space-consuming, an option only for the biggest boats. He foresees an industry shakeout that, despite his love for the work, could include him.

"It's hard to equal, really hard to equal what we have. And to say that I'd walk away from it with ropeless gear, I would. Because it's not the answer, it's not the answer for this fishery," he says.

And there is one high-tech/low-tech solution drawing new interest from stakeholders in the industry and among whale advocates. Radio frequency ID tags are used to locate lobster traps that are connected to each other by lines on the ocean floor. A grappling hook is then dragged along the bottom to snag the lines and trawl them up.

Fishermen already use grapples to retrieve lost gear, but in Maine it’s not legal as a harvesting technique — and it’s practicality may be limited, particularly in areas where gear is dense.

Federal officials who are working to help the development of on-demand technology, meanwhile, say it is at least five years away from commercial-scale deployment. That might be too late for some Maine lobstermen who could soon face a loss of access to a resource that's sustained them for more than a century.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.