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MLA 68th Annual Meeting

From left to right: DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher, Officers of the Year MPO James Mayotte and Sargeant Mark Murray, MLA President Kristan Porter

The 68th annual meeting of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) took place outdoors at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast on June 4. The meeting opened with the presentation of the MLA’s Officer of the Year award to two Maine Patrol Officers (the 2021 award ceremony was not held) to Officer James Mayotte from Section 2 and Sergeant Mark Murry from Section 5.

MLA president Kristan Porter introduced the four MLA staff and then three members of the legal team, Ryan Steen and Jason Morgan from Stoel Rives and long-time counsel Mary Anne Mason. He followed by presenting the slate of nominees for election to the MLA board: Joshua Beal, Laurin Brooks, Herman Coombs, Jim Dow, Craig Stewart, John Tripp, and Chris Welch for three-year terms and Jarod Bray for a two-year term. He also commended Tad Miller of Matinicus, who stepped down this year after serving on the board for 16 years. The membership unanimously supported the slate of nominees. “I’m so proud to have these guys behind me,” said Porter. “I can’t thank these guys enough for putting the time in.”

MLA Board members being thanked

MLA executive director Patrice McCarron then presented some highlights of MLA’s work during the past year. She first pointed out the numerous challenges facing the Maine lobster fishery. In 2023 Maine lobstermen will have to comply with 100% mandatory reporting regulations. Electronic trackers will be required on all federally permitted vessels by December 2023. The federal Bureau of Offshore Energy Management (BOEM) plans to hold a lease of offshore areas in the Gulf of Maine for wind energy development late in 2024. And the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will be implementing further risk reduction measures in the lobster fishery to achieve a 90% reduction earlier than expected.

The electronic vessel tracking requirement (Addendum 29), instituted by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), was designed to generate more precise spatial and temporal data on the lobster fishery. “While MLA did not agree with many aspects of this management proposal, we really don’t know who is being impacted by wind projects or whale rules because we don’t know where they are fishing and what they are landing,” McCarron said. The devices will remain on all the time, will ping at a rate of once a minute, and will be paid for with federal funds for the first three years.

MLA Executive Director Patrice McCarron updating MLA members

ASMFC has also proposed Addendum 27, known as the “resiliency” addendum, to address the future productivity of the lobster fishery. Based on the last five years of data, lobster abundance is down at every stage of its life cycle. To ensure enough baby lobsters are entering the population that allow the fishery to maintain landings around 100 million pounds annually, the ASMFC is exploring options to standardize measures among the lobster management areas and set a trigger point which when reached would cause other conservation measures to be applied, such as a change in legal size and/or vent size. There is some pressure to hold off on the Addendum until there is more clarity on the whale rule regulations. The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) plans to have meetings with lobstermen before ASMFC holds public meetings on the Addendum in the fall.

Governor Mills’ plan to lease an area offshore southern Maine for construction of a wind research array is moving forward. In July 2021, a 15.2 square mile final area was selected; in October that year the Governor’s office formally applied to BOEM for a lease to construct up to 12 floating turbines in the area. BOEM will send out a request for competitive interest this summer. If others express interest, then BOEM will proceed into a competitive bid process. In the meantime, the Governor’s Energy Office is completing its Offshore Wind Road Map, a strategic plan for Maine’s offshore wind strategy, which will be finalized this fall.

BOEM will also send out a request for interest for offshore leases in the Gulf of Maine later this year. The draft request for interest includes nearly all of the Gulf of Maine for lease, although the area will be reduced as areas of conflict are identified. The plan is for a lease auction in late 2024.

McCarron next gave an update on the whale rules. The 10-year whale conservation plan is part of the Biological Opinion released by NMFS in May 2021. The first phase of that plan required Maine lobstermen to use weak links or weak rope (breaking at 1,700 pounds of pressure) in their end lines, to trawl up based on distance from shore, and to use purple marks in their lines (paired with green in federal waters). That, combined with the October-to-November offshore closure, allowed the state to reach the 60% reduction in risk to right whales mandated by NMFS.

McCarron noted that MLA’s work sifting through NMFS’s data elucidated many of the statistics that are now commonly understood about the Maine lobster fishery’s role in the right whale decline. Maine lobster gear has never been known to kill a right whale. The last entanglement in Maine gear occurred in 2014. Furthermore, the rope removed from those right whales that have been entangled has been increasing in diameter while at the same time the majority of known right whale deaths have been attributed to Canadian activities. McCarron noted that in recent years, NMFS data show that vessel strikes in U.S. waters have caused more right whale deaths than any fishery-related deaths.

Since 1997, when the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan was first put into place, lobstermen have removed 27,000 miles of groundline and 3,000 miles of vertical line. There has been a 90% reduction in lobster gear entanglement since 2010. Research shows that, due to climate change, right whales are actually moving further away from the footprint of the Maine lobster fishery and are spending many months in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Yet NMFS has called for lobstermen to move from 60% risk reduction to 90% reduction earlier than scheduled in the 10-year whale conservation plan. “What can we do?” McCarron asked. “We know we will have to take more rope out of the water but have few options to accomplish that. We could be facing trap limits and potentially more closures. How can you change your business plan to reduce rope and still be able to make a living?”

MLA members getting an update on the lawsuit

McCarron reviewed the status of the MLA’s lawsuit and that brought by national environmental organizations against NMFS. The environmental organizations’ suit contends that NMFS’s Biological Opinion is inadequate. The whale rules should apply to both federal and state waters and risk reduction measures should be instituted immediately, not over a ten-year period. The suit has the potential to shut down the fishery entirely. This lawsuit tells the court the story of the right whale decline from the environmental groups’ perspective.

The MLA lawsuit contends that NMFS acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it created the Biological Opinion and the agency must revise the ten-year whale conservation plan. The agency relied on flawed data, then assigned too much risk to the lobster fishery. “NMFS logic for this is simply that the lobster fishery is the largest fishery with a lot of rope in the water so therefore you are the cause,” McCarron explained. To make matters worse, it relied only on worst case scenarios for the right whale recovery and stretched those assumptions out for 50 years. “NMFS got it wrong,” McCarron said. “You guys are going to be eliminated. MLA recognized that we need to be out in front of this to set the tone for the fight. By suing NMFS we can get information about the lobster fishery before the judge that he has not yet seen. He will finally hear our side of the story.”

Attorney Ryan Steen speaks to MLA members. MLA photo.

McCarron next turned the podium over to attorney Ryan Steen from the lawfirm of Stoel Rives. Steen explained in detail the strategy that the MLA’s legal team is using to prove the arbitrary and capricious character of NMFS’s actions.

MLA members asked numerous questions about the details of the court case. The questions revolved around the core elements of the case, specifically what the MLA is asking D.C. District Court Judge Boasberg to do. Steen explained that the MLA lawsuit contends that the Biological Opinion is wrong in terms of how much risk reduction Maine lobstermen should be required to make. The MLA is not asking the Biological Opinion be tossed out entirely because without a Biological Opinion in place, the lobster fishery cannot be permitted to operate. Instead, the MLA is asking that the plan be sent back to NMFS and its numerous errors corrected. Judge Boasberg will assess whether NMFS made a lawful decision under the Endangered Species Act, and if not, what should be done to rectify its action. His decision may come as early as mid-summer.

Commissioner Patrick Keliher speaking

DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher spoke about the legal actions his department has taken regarding the 10-year whale conservation plan. Governor Mills approved funds for DMR to hire outside legal counsel with expertise in the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. The DMR contracted with Seattle law firm Nossaman LLC to represent the agency. Commissioner Keliher requested additional funds from the Governor for the court case and anticipated appeals and received $1 million, bringing total available funds to $3 million.

“We are proud to work with the MLA and we are proud to be in this fight,” Keliher said. “But even if we win, there will be more changes coming to the fishery.”

Steen noted how rare it is for a state marine resource agency and an independent fishermen’s group to work together. “It’s really unusual to have the state in sync with the fishery. It is extremely significant to have the state support you, it’s a huge step up,” he said.

President Kristen Porter closed the meeting by recognizing Brendan and John Ready, who were in the audience. The brothers recently made a $200,000 donation to the MLA’s Save Maine Lobstermen campaign in addition to their previous donation of $50,000 in 2021. “They get it. They are putting pressure on others to do the same,” Porter said. “We are doing this right. All of you, go back to your harbors and tell them that this is real. Tell them to contribute!”

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