Well, they did it. At its April 17 meeting in Connecticut the New England Fisheries Management Council reaffirmed the economically vital place that lobster fishing has in this state by exempting lobstermen from restrictions that may flow from the council’s Omnibus Deep Sea Coral Amendment. 

The decision qualifies as a Big Deal. The council has been considering ways to protect deep-sea corals found within the Gulf of Maine and along the continental shelf for several years. Protecting a living creature that is not a fish is new ground for the council, which draws its regulatory authority from the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. But revisions to the act in 2006 gave the council “discretionary authority” to protect deep-sea corals in New England. Thus, creation of the Omnibus Amendment, the provisions of which will be applied to all of the council’s 28 fisheries management plans. 

The amendment identifies four coral areas in the Gulf of Maine as well as several canyons south of Georges Bank for protection. Two Gulf of Maine sites are places where Maine lobstermen set their traps — Outer Schoodic Ridge and Mt. Desert Rock. 

You and I would look at the two locations and say, “Hmmmmm. Water.” Lobstermen, on the other hand, look at the water and envision what lies beneath it, the rocky seabed on which lots of lobsters live in their individual burrows. 

So, when the council stated last year that it was considering closing those two areas to all bottom-tending gear, Down East lobstermen took notice. Such closures would mean no fishing for lobster or red crab, another commercially valuable species. In January, the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) asked the council to specifically exempt lobster fishing from possible closed-area restrictions. The council replied that it was too early in the amendment process to exempt any fishery. It asked, instead, for more information about the economic value of these two areas. 

A dollar figure is a tricky number to come up with when it comes to lobster fishing. Certainly the past decade has been profitable for lobstermen. But each year varies and landings vary by place. In some years, more traps may be set at Mt. Desert Rock than in other years, for example. Lobstermen move their traps around throughout the fishing season, sometimes setting in one location for a month one year and a week the next, depending on the infinite variables of fishing. 

The DMR took the council’s request seriously and set about figuring out the possible economic impact that closure of those two areas would have on Hancock and Washington counties’ economy. That task was made harder since DMR had fairly meager state dealer and harvester logbook data and just a few Vessel Trip Reports from federal waters to draw upon. So the department sent the word out to lobstermen: Help us make a good economic argument that these two areas are valuable. Lobstermen are notoriously guarded about their earnings and even more reticent about where they fish. But DMR’s plea worked. Individual lobstermen shared their close-held financial information and hand-scribbled location notes with DMR staff. DMR was able to present data to the council stating that approximately $4.2 million in lobster fishing revenue was derived from those two sites.

At its recent meeting, the council chose what’s known as a “preferred alternative” for coral-zone closures. Specifically, the “preferred alternative” for the inshore Gulf of Maine would prohibit mobile bottom-tending gear (trawls and dredges) within the Schoodic Ridge and Mt. Desert Rock areas, but not lobster gear. “While an option to prohibit all bottom-tending gear, including lobster traps/pots, is still in the amendment, it is NOT the Council’s preferred alternative. The Council recognized the economic impact associated with preventing the lobster fishery from working within the inshore areas and acknowledged that shifts in effort to other locations could be problematic,” the council stated in its press release.

Toward the end of May, the council will hold public hearings on its preferred alternative. It will weigh the comments received at those hearings before voting on the final version of the amendment at its meeting in June. 

What does this all mean? It means that Maine’s lobster fishery is the dominant economic driver along the coast, on par with the treasured tourists who bring outside dollars to the state each summer. And it means that the Maine lobster fishery is extremely vulnerable, not only to increasing water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine but also to the ever-changing regulatory environment in which each lobsterman works.