Sep. 17—A more than 950-square-mile stretch of the Gulf of Maine will be off-limits to traditional lobstering starting Oct. 18 through the end of January.
Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its final rule on the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which seeks to reduce the lobster fishery's threat to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale by 60 percent.
The final rule was published in the federal register Friday, starting a 30-day countdown until the area closes to traditional rope-and-buoy lobster trapping through January. Ropeless fishing, a high-tech approach not yet implemented commercially in Maine, still will be allowed.
The late fall and winter months aren't traditionally the busy season for Maine lobstermen, but for offshore fishermen, the colder temperatures mean harder shells and higher prices, making it a lucrative time of year. Lobstermen contend the new rules will be expensive, dangerous, burdensome and impractical, and won't reduce the risk to whales.
According to federal officials, the closure will directly affect roughly 60 lobstermen in the restricted area and another 60 who might be affected by the others relocating, but not the vast majority of lobstermen, who fish closer to shore.
For those who do fish in the restricted area, officials expect the closure will cost 5 to 10 percent of their total revenue each year.
Lobstermen who fish in the area, though, say the estimates are grossly off the mark. They say revenue losses for those affected could be closer to 50 percent.
The plan does allow buoyless or "ropeless" fishing — a new and experimental technology that brings lobster traps to the surface using acoustic signals — but the technology has not been tested in Maine. It will require a special permit from the state Department of Marine Resources.
NOAA's proposed rule explored the option for adaptive management, setting a sort of "trigger" that would signal the need for a closure instead of instituting an all-out ban on traditional fishing in the area for four months of the year. The option was not included in the final rule — partly, according to officials, because a reliable trigger was not identified.
Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, has said not only is the closure far larger than it needs to be, but it also poses risks beyond just increased competition.
"Denser aggregations of gear outside the restricted area will pose an increase in gear conflict as fishermen are displaced from the restricted area and forced to find new areas to set their gear," Keliher said in a statement.
Some lobstermen expressed concern that not only will there be more gear conflicts, they'll also lose revenue when lobstermen who normally use the restricted area are pushed into territory where they don't usually fish.
Others worry that the area could transform into a derby-style fishery, in which a season opens for just a short time, forcing fishermen to race to find a spot and land their catch in that window, sometimes at the risk of their safety.
Aside from the closed area, the new rules also require lobstermen to string more traps on a single rope and to use weaker ropes to allow entangled whales to break free. Lobster and crab fishermen also will have to add state-specific color markings to gear, a requirement officials believed the state had already met in 2020. However, the final rule included additional changes to the state's gear-marking systems, blindsiding government and industry officials, as well as fishermen.
The gear modifications required by the rule will go into effect May 1, 2022, which is the start of the American lobster/Jonah crab fishing year.