Fishermen: Lobster Gear Won’t

Impact Corals

by Laurie Schreiber


“Marine corals in these
zones appear to be
thriving, which means
they’ve coexisted with
the trap fisheries
for years.”

– Jack Merrill,
Cranberry Isles fisherman
and MLA


ELLSWORTH—Fishermen turned out in Ellsworth for a hearing, hosted May 25 by the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) as one of seven hearings along the coast, on proposed alternatives for NEFMC’s Omnibus Deep-Sea Coral Amendment.

The amendment contains proposals for protecting corals, including reducing impacts from fishing gear in the Gulf of Maine and on the Continental Slope south of Georges Bank.

Fishermen were mainly concerned about proposed closures in inshore Gulf of Maine at Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mt. Desert Rock. They said they supported an alternative that would allow lobster gear in the closures.

Doug Grout, vice chair of NEFMC’s habitat committee, said the coral amendment was originally part of NEFMC’s omnibus habitat amendment, for which development began in 2011. But that amendment became so complex that NEFMC decided to break out the coral part and set it aside. Work resumed on coral protections in 2015.

“During the period we put it aside, it helped improve some of the data monitoring that we had on corals,” Grout said. “There were a lot of surveys done between 2013 and 2015.”

In his testimony, Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher said the proposed closures are a serious issue for Maine.

Keliher said the DMR supported NEFMC’s preferred alternative for the inshore Gulf of Maine to prohibit the use of mobile bottom tending gear in both the Mount Desert Rock and Outer Schoodic Ridge areas, but exempts lobster gear from the two areas.

“Lobster fishing is the economic backbone of Downeast coastal Maine,” Keliher said. “Each of these proposed coral protection areas represent an important fishing ground for over fifty vessels from approximately fifteen communities, and many of these vessels fish these two areas throughout the majority of the year.”

Keliher cited data from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that estimates revenue from the proposed areas at $4.5 million. However, he said, a recent survey conducted by DMR staff, in April, determined the number of months actively fished, as well as the number of trips that occur within these zones, was underestimated by the ASMFC, resulting in a conservative estimate of revenue.

Displacement of fishing gear is also a concern, due to the territorial nature of the fishery, Keliher said.

“Displacement will result in significant gear conflicts, reduced catch due to gear density and accordingly, greater economic impact,” he said.

The DMR was also concerned about the potential impact to whales, he said. Prohibiting lobster gear in the proposed closures, he said, “would simply push that effort to the boundaries of the closure, creating increased density and causing a ‘curtain’ effect, greatly increasing risk to large whales, particularly endangered right whales, in areas that already have high co-occurrence of gear and whales.”

Other speakers agreed with Keliher, saying that banning lobster gear from the proposed closures would be bad both from the economic and social standpoint.

“As time goes on, it’s become more difficult to maintain the historic areas we’ve fished for generations,” said Downeast Lobstermen’s Association president Hilton Turner. “The closed area will push fishermen outside of their normal fishing grounds….Fishermen who fish around each other regularly are aware of each other’s styles, such as how they lay out their gear.” When forced to fish around fishermen they don’t know, “it can lead to gear conflict, which has become a problem of late in this area. We don’t want to add more fuel to this fire. It’s not that we’re against protecting our ecosystem, but we must look at the impact on fishermen and their families. We urge you take our livelihood into consideration.”

David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, agreed that displacing fishermen from their traditional territories could create gear conflict.

“Those traps have to go somewhere,” Cousens said. “That will create a wall of rope around those areas that won’t be good for right whales. We worked our asses off for 20 years to accommodate right whales. This will be a disaster for fishermen and whales….Those are very high-impact fishing areas….If you take that away from the fishermen, you’re not a only taking income away but you’re pushing them into areas where it’s not going to be good socially.”

“It’s going to impact the lobster industry and the fishermen who fish in this areas,” said Rocky Alley, president of the Maine Lobstering Union. “The impact on the economy is three to five times the actual catch total….That’s big. Another thing that really involves a lot of fishermen out there now is the right whales. We always have the problem: It’s never going to go away. The impact on making fishermen leave that area and go to the other area will just put more lines in the area around it and will cause more entanglement.”

“Closure of these areas [to lobster fishing] would put extreme economic and social pressure not only on fishermen but on hundreds of lobstermen in surrounding areas,” said Jack Merrill, a member of the MLA board of directors and the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-op. “Lobstering is a top economic engine for most of coastal Maine, and even more so in the eastern half of the state. Removing all of the traps in the coral zones could cause problems for passing right whales. Marine corals in these zones appear to be thriving, which means they’ve coexisted with the trap fisheries for years.”

“The economic impact would be catastrophic for downeast Maine,” said Cranberry Isles fisherman Richard Howland. “All these lobstermen, their wives, their kids, their sternmen, their third men, they’ve got kids—it would be devastating.”

Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries’ fisheries and seafood associate, Patrick Shepard, agreed with the comments, and further asked NEFMC to consider allowing hook fishing in the proposed closures.

“I operate a survey fishery of cod in both areas, for the purpose of tracking groundfish populations in the eastern Gulf of Maine, explained Shepard. “If and when a fishery comes back for groundfish, we’d like to at least be able to fish with hooks in those areas.”