April 10, 2017 — Over the past 10 years, the issue of how to protect endangered whales from getting tangled in fishing gear has been a driving factor in how lobstermen configure their gear and how much money they have to spend to comply with regulations.
Now federal officials have cited the need to protect deep-sea corals in a proposal to close some areas to fishing — a proposal that, according to lobstermen, could pose a serious threat to how they ply their trade.
“The [potential] financial impact is huge,” Jim Dow, a Bass Harbor lobsterman and board member with Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said Wednesday. “You’re talking a lot of the coast that is going to be affected by it.”
The discovery in 2014 of deep-sea corals in the gulf, near Mount Desert Rock and along the Outer Schoodic Ridges, has prompted the New England Fisheries Management Council to consider making those area off-limits to fishing vessels in order to protect the coral from damage. According to Maine Department of Marine Resources, fishermen from at least 15 harbors in Hancock and Washington counties could be affected by the proposed closure.
“They could probably find coral along the entire coast of Maine, outside of 3 miles [in federal waters], if they start hunting for it,” David Cousens, a South Thomaston fishermen and president of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, told more than 100 fishermen last month at a meeting on the topic at the annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum in Rockport.
Terry Stockwell, a senior DMR official who represents Maine on the council and other fishing regulatory entities, said the state has been lobbying the council to consider making an exception for the lobster trap fishery at the proposed closure sites in the gulf but so far without success. Traps are lowered and then raised from the bottom and so should cause less damage to coral than other types of gear such as scallop dredges, which are dragged along the bottom, according to Stockwell and others who support making lobster traps exempt.
“Twice I’ve gone down in flames,” Stockwell said of his efforts to date to get the council to agree to an exemption for lobster trap gear.
Further offshore in the Gulf of Maine, beyond the reach of the small boats that make up Maine’s lobster fishing fleet, the council also is proposing coral-related fishing closures in parts of the Jordan and Georges basins.
Outside the Gulf of Maine, roughly 100 to 200 nautical miles southeast of Cape Cod, are 20 underwater canyons at the edge of the continental shelf, where coral closures also could be enacted. Five of those canyons, along with four seamounts off the continental shelf, are part of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which former President Obama created last September and which is being challenged in federal court by the Pacific Legal Foundation.