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Steaming Ahead - May 2019

There is a lot of buzz right now around the docks, in coffee shops and on Facebook about what the new whale measures will mean for Maine. Most lobstermen have understood since last year that our industry would be facing significant changes in this round of rulemaking by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), yet everyone felt collectively stunned when the 50% vertical line reduction was announced in late April. Lobstermen quickly began to take stock of their business plans and how they fish. The solution seemed simple to many. Offshore boats recommended doubling the length of all trawls in the state to get half the rope out of the water. Captains of smaller, inshore boats suggested that this rope reduction could be achieved through trap reductions. Others simply worried to themselves about how the changes might take place and what a 50% reduction in vertical lines would mean for their business.

fishermen on the sea

What does the future hold for Maine lobstermen? Discussions this summer will have a lasting impact on how we fish in the future. Maine Office of Tourism photo

At this point, we understand only the task ahead of us — Maine must remove half of all vertical lines from the water. How the state achieves this reduction is very much still a topic for debate. NMFS has stated that the new whale measures will go through regular rulemaking, so changes are not likely to be implemented until the 2021 fishing season. The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) has said that it plans to hold industry meetings by zone beginning in June. NMFS plans to hold scoping meetings with lobstermen this summer. The next phase in this chapter on whale rules will be based in large part on the ideas that we — DMR and lobstermen — come up with through this process to achieve the line reduction. So, it is not yet time change how you fish. Instead, it’s time to come together to decide the best way to remove this rope. And it is not going to be easy. With larger, offshore boats leaning toward making the fishery bigger and smaller inshore boats leaning toward making due with less, it is clear that finding a solution that will work for all Maine lobstermen is going to be a real challenge. Larger boats require larger cash flow to operate and many fear that cutting back on traps would impact their bottom line. These boats can easily add crew, run longer trawls and fish further from shore in order to maintain a full gang of traps. In contrast, smaller boats are limited by space on deck and where they can safely fish. Many cannot handle trawls or carry crew due to vessel and equipment limitations or the bottom they fish. We must be careful not to create incentives for lobstermen to transition into larger boats. If that is in someone’s business plan, that’s fine. But we don’t want to create a situation where you must get bigger to survive. And one of the most confounding problems is that there is more rope inshore — and more rope to remove — where gear is less heavy and whales are rare. And there is less rope offshore — and less rope to remove — where gear is heavier and potentially riskier to whales, and whales are more likely to transit through these areas. We must be careful not to overburden the inshore fishery where risk is lowest simply because it is capable of removing a lot more rope. The MLA board began to discuss this dilemma during its May board meeting. Even among these 21 lobstermen who have a history of working together, the solutions are far from clear. The MLA board did, however, conclude that there are things that lobstermen can agree on as they think through a 50% reduction. First, all options should be on the table. Inshore boats can not unilaterally say “no” to trawling up in the same way that offshore boats cannot unilaterally say “no” to trap limits. Each sector of the industry should make the effort to understand why others want to fight so hard for or against certain approaches. Inshore lobstermen do not talk about reducing traps because they are lazy and don’t want to work hard; offshore lobstermen don’t insist on keeping a full complement of traps and running longer trawls because they are greedy. There are sound business decisions driving each line of thinking and each has its place. The task for our industry is to listen and understand each other’s perspective rather than dismissing any ideas out of hand. These discussions certainly have the ability to divide our fishery at a time when we most need to come together. Finding a way to remove half of our vertical lines from the water is an extraordinarily challenging task and will require everyone to rethink how the fishery is executed. If we fail at this task, we will face increasing pressure to transition to a “ropeless” fishery, which means no vertical lines in the water column within five to ten years.

Patrice McCarron, MLA Executive Director. MLA photo.

I was at the table and can tell you with complete certainty that environmental groups want that to be our future. I cannot envision any economic model that will work based on ropeless fishing, even with Maine’s current historically high landings and value. Ropeless fishing will threaten the diversity of our fleet and the ability to recruit young people to become lobstermen. Maine’s lobster fishery would no longer support thousands of boats and sustain our coastal communities. As you think about how to best take half of our vertical lines out of the water, ask yourself a few questions. Will your idea preserve the diversity of the fleet and treat small, medium and large Maine lobster boats equitably? Will your approach treat vessels fairly across the state, from east to west, and inshore to offshore? Will your idea allow all sectors of the fleet to remain profitable? Will it allow enough fishing days and cash flow to keep larger boats going? Will it be safe and operationally feasible for smaller operations? If not, can you envision ways to rethink your approach to support all sectors of the fleet? I know that this is a tall order because the needs of the fleet vary so widely. But in the end, every lobsterman should feel that he or she had to compromise on something to keep it fair for all. That is how we can make this onerous task work so that all of Maine’s fleet remains successful as these changes take place. Maine’s lobster fishery is very special, offering a place for so many different business models. I urge you not only to think about your own needs, but to consider the needs of the fishery as a whole. We have to make this work without destroying ourselves and our communities in the process. There is so much to lose if we are unwilling to work together and find compromise. We don’t want to look back ten years from now and realize that we let something truly special slip away.

As always, stay safe on the water.

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