Maine lobster industry denounces lack of clarity on application of new whale protection rules

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Oct. 11 – State and federal regulators say they are ready to enforce the 967 square mile area of ​​the Gulf of Maine that will be closed to traditional lobster fishing for the next three months, but have been quiet about what the application. as or what might be the penalties for anyone found in violation of the closure area.

Environmentalists, who support the closure designed to help protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from becoming entangled in lobster fishing gear, say the lack of detail is not surprisingly, but Maine lobster industry officials are frustrated by the silence.

According to Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the industry is still trying to figure out why the area is even going to be closed in the first place. The closure will take effect on October 18.

“Now this is happening and we haven’t had any correspondence on the rules of operation, the application,” she said. “The whole closure literally fell from the sky, and we were given very little information and (we were told) to get out of there.… All I saw was October 18, here is the box (describing the closure zone), take out your equipment. “

APPLICATION OF SOUP TO THE ALPHABET

Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a new set of rules for New England lobster fishing aimed at reducing the risk to North Atlantic right whales by at least 60%. Scientists believe that there are only around 360 right whales left in the world, although members of the lobster industry say they do not see whales in Maine waters and are not responsible for them. decline.

The closure, which is located about 30 miles offshore and extends from about Mount Desert Island to eastern Casco Bay, will be overseen by Maine Marine Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Office of NOAA law enforcement.

According to Allison Ferreira, spokesperson for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Bureau, the area cannot be marked due to its location on the high seas, but fishermen are given contact details so they know where to go. keep away.

The agency declined to answer any questions about possible penalties for violating the closed area because “it depends on the circumstances surrounding the violation.”

Overall, however, “our law enforcement staff are focused on education and awareness of violations,” Ferreira said in an email. “We want to make sure the fishermen fully understand the rules before they go down the path of infractions.”

Ferreira did not say exactly how the agency will assess violations or what acts could be used when imposing sanctions, but pointed out the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which gives the power to manage marine fisheries. American.

The law provides four basic remedies for a violation, depending on the seriousness, and includes issuing a warning, usually after the first violation, and then imposing a civil monetary penalty. For certain offenses, the agency may initiate legal proceedings against the vessel and its catches, authorize penalties or initiate criminal proceedings against the owner or operator.

It’s unclear what laws might come into play for violating the Maine shutdown, but the maximum penalties for violating the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Magnuson Act -Stevens are $ 52,596 per violation, $ 29,596 per violation and $ 189,427 per violation, respectively. .

Gib Brogan, senior campaign manager at marine conservation nonprofit Oceana, said he was unsure how federal officials made the decision on which law to use, but had “seen cases falling under all the alphabet soup of acts “.

TYPICALLY HIGH COMPLIANCE

Brogan said based on how other closed areas have been managed in other fisheries, he expects this closure to be effectively enforced.

“NOAA law enforcement, along with the Coast Guard and the states (…) are doing a very good job of enforcing these regulations,” he said.

Erica Fuller, senior counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation, agreed.

“It’s typical of enforcement efforts everywhere, they don’t tell the regulators how they’re going to enforce it,” she said, but “if the past is any indicator I’m optimistic.”

Other New England closures, including one nearly three times the size of the one ready to open in Maine, have gone well and have a high degree of compliance, she noted.

Sean Mahoney, executive vice president of the foundation, said law enforcement for Maine’s lobster fishery will likely be even easier than for other fisheries.

“For some of the other closures that are closed to mobile gear, the application is a bit more difficult because they move their gear, they hang around,” he said. “For trap fishing, like lobsters and crabs, you set up your traps. The latitude and longitude of the closed area is pretty clear.… I think they will apply them very strictly, especially at the start.”

But McCarron, director of the lobstermen association, said the other closings aren’t a fair comparison.

For example, a large seasonal shutdown in Massachusetts crossed through up to three-quarters of the whale population. It’s hard to lose the ocean floor, said McCarron, but “you can feel good as a fisherman knowing you’ve put your gear out of the way.”

It’s not the same in Maine, which doesn’t have the same high level of sightings, she said. Additionally, fishing reopens once the last whale swims out of the area, rather than on a set date like with Maine’s impending closure.

“I understand we’re not the first shutdown, but we know it’s different,” McCarron said.

READY FOR THE MARITIME PATROL

And while this isn’t the first seasonal shutdown for NOAA officials, it is the first for the Maine Marine Patrol.

Jay Carroll, Marine Patrol Colonel, said there was an “unknown factor” before the seasonal shutdown.

“A huge closed area has never happened (in Maine) before,” he said. “We will have to work to adapt and understand how everyone is going to coexist around this closure.”

That said, the agency is not doing anything in particular to prepare and it will be enforced like any other area, he said, adding that enforcement guidance will come from the federal level.

“There are so many lines drawn in the ocean,” he said. “Operationally, this agency is very capable of managing what it has on its plate. I don’t think it will be a problem.

Federal officials say the closure will directly affect about 60 lobster vessels in the regulated area and another 60 that could be affected by the relocation of others, but not the vast majority of lobster vessels, which fish closer to shore.

For those fishing in the restricted area, authorities expect the closure will cost 5 to 10 percent of their total income each year.

Lobsters who fish in the area, however, say the estimates are grossly wrong. They say the loss of income for those affected could be closer to 50%. Lobster fishermen who do not fish in the area have also expressed their fear that there will be more gear conflicts and loss of income when lobster vessels that normally use the restricted area are pushed into territory where they do not fish. usually not.

The plan allows buoyless or “cordless” 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. This will require a special permit from the state department of marine resources.

MOST FOLLOW THE RULES

Maine Public reported on Tuesday that a North Atlantic right whale filmed a few miles off Portland Harbor last month is considered by NOAA to be a “definitive” right whale sighting and will be listed in the national catalog of confirmed sightings.

Amy Knowlton, a whale expert at the New England Aquarium in Boston, believes the white scar tissue seen on the whale’s worms indicates that it at one point became entangled in fishing gear, according to the report.

NOAA officials estimate that about 85 percent of right whales show signs of entanglement, although there is often no way of knowing where these entanglements have occurred.

Mahoney, of the Conservation Law Foundation, which has offices in Boston and Portland, said the closed area was positive for whales and a small price to pay for fishing.

“If you want to balance the extinction of a species, especially one as iconic as the North Atlantic right whale, preventing that extinction is worth closing down the area and having the impact it can have. “of the roughly 60 to 70 lobster boats that fish there.

Despite their frustrations, McCarron said she expects lobster boats to follow the rules.

“I have always seen fishermen being upset with the whale rules and I have always seen very high compliance,” she said. “It’s incredibly frustrating; they’re angry about it and (they) don’t understand why this area is closed. I share all of these feelings. But in my experience, despite all the anger, our compliance has been fine. over 90 percent. I suspect the guys are going to do the right thing. “


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