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Fishermen Press Regulators with Tough Questions at Forum

Each year at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum, a cadre of staff from the federal science and management branches of NOAA Fisheries and regional management council representatives, gather to answer questions from those attending the Forum. This year the panel comprised Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator, National Marine Fisheries Service GARFO; Jon Hare, Science and Research Director, Northeast Fisheries Science Center; Eric Reid, chair of the New England Fishery Management Council; and Cate O’Keefe, Executive Director of the New England Fishery Management Council.

Questions ranged widely during the session. Dana Morse, Maine Sea Grant, asked about the effect of climate change on Gulf of Maine fisheries and access to new species for commercial fishermen. “The Council has a set of species that it manages,” responded Eric Reid. “There are only two that we co-manage with the Mid-Atlantic Council. It’s an issue that the East Coast Climate Change group is discussing. As the biomass moves north and east how are we going to manage and catch them?”

“There’s been a decline in participation on the Council from commercial fishermen. How can the Council re-engage with fishermen?” asked Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. “It’s a real problem,” said Cate O’Keefe. “Where are the opportunities to bring back more fishing opportunities? Also, too much negative news dampens involvement.” Reid added, “The question is at what point is it worth it for me, a fisherman, to become involved in this process. We are all frustrated but the solution isn’t to stay home and be mad.”

Another audience member asked specifically about abrupt changes in quota for species such as haddock. “They don’t swing that much year-to-year,” Jon Hare responded. “It’s levelling out variability.”

Patrice McCarron, policy director for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA), asked a question related to the timeline for new whale rules, and a new Biological Opinion, both due by the end of 2028, and lobstermen’s chance to engage in those processes. “There is an opportunity for NMFS to fill data gaps. DMR has been clear about how it will spend its money on research. What are you doing and what are your milestones?” she asked.

Jon Hare referred to the $26 million available through the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act which went to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for right whale conservation efforts and the $20 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for on-demand (ropeless) gear work, noting that those are the funds that DMR has already discussed a workplan for. NMFS itself has also received additional funds. There hasn’t been as much detail released about this since spending plans are still in development. Hare provided a high level overview. NMFS has $3 million for monitoring, which Hare said will be used for aerial coverage in the Gulf of Maine and mid-Atlantic. The Inflation Reduction Act provided $82 million for right whale conservation activities. Of that $20 million goes to addressing entanglement risk through development of ropeless gear; $20 million goes to develop technology to reduce vessel strike; and $25 million is dedicated to improved computer modelling and increased monitoring.

Michael Pentony addressed the agency’s timeline to reach the 2028 deadline for a new Biological Opinion on the lobster and crab fisheries. “Concerning the Biological Opinion, we have two conflicting legal opinions on that. We have to reconcile those,” he said. McCarron pointed out that the 2023 legal ruling from the MLA’s appeal was very clear, and most of the rulings in the environmental lawsuit have been vacated, leaving no room for “conflicting legal opinions.”

In the last Biological Opinion “we weren’t able to analyze or understand the implications of measures that Canada has taken over the last several years to reduce their risk, we didn’t have and unfortunately still don’t have a final rule for vessel speed, we weren’t able, in our final Biop, to understand or give any credit to the reduction from risk from a new speed rule,” Pentony continued. “Canada has done things that have reduced risk to some degree so we’re able to incorporate that into the next Biop as well as fully understand and evaluate the impact of the measures we took in 2021.”

Mary Ann Mason, the MLA’s attorney, asked a follow-up question concerning the Biological Opinion. “The Court of Appeals noted that risk scenarios [considered in the Biological Opinion] should be ‘reasonably likely’ to occur, not worst-case scenarios. Where will the Biological Opinion be focusing to comply with guidelines from the court?” she asked.

“We don’t have clear guidance. We have to look at the ruling. We don’t have a playbook for how to do that,” Pentony responded. “It puts us back at the drawing board. How do we characterize scenarios in light of the court decision? We will figure out a path forward and we will inform the TRT (Take Reduction Team) as that happens.”

“While you are doing that, don’t stay behind a screen,” Mason said. “Don’t just show up with something at the end of the timeline. It is important to share your principles with the public.”


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