News Feature

Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, September 22, 2022
Looking ahead for the lobster fishery
Asking for help with ropeless fishing gear

by Leslie Landrigan

The local lobster industry is starting to plan for life after the federal government imposes stringent limits to rope fishing. Those changes are expected to happen soon, according to Patrick Kelliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, in an email update to the lobster industry.

“Whatever measures are ultimately implemented, they are likely to impact fishermen in all zones, and the changes are coming fast,” Kelliher said.

The Stonington Harbor Committee met September 18 and discussed ropeless fishing, said Evelyn Duncan, selectman’s representative to the committee. “They did think there should be some sort of offshore testing started,” Duncan said. The committee also expressed fear at the cost of setting up ropeless fishing, she said.

One ropeless fishing system includes a bag that inflates when it receives an electronic signal from the boat. Stonington Selectman Travis Fifield, also a lobster dealer, estimates such a system costs slightly less than $160,000 per fishing vessel.

To outfit just the island’s lobster fishing fleet with such gear would cost about $11 million, Fifield estimated, and $190 million for all of Maine’s permitted vessels.

Maine’s congressional delegation has set its sights a bit lower, proposing in March a $10 million grant program to help U.S. lobstermen with modifications to old gear and the transition to new gear.

Fifield drafted a letter that asks the federal government to help lobster fishermen adapt to ropeless fishing. The Stonington select board signed the letter to Maine’s congressional delegation on September 19.

Fifield included three requests in the letter (see Another View column on page 4). First, create a voucher program that would let each offshore lobster vessel buy or build 35 ropeless traps or kits and the technology that goes with it, using any local trap builder.

Second, require federal agencies to give blanket permission for ropeless fishing to lobster boats with federal permits. The current permitting process is “undefined, convoluted, and functionally impossible for a lay person,” Fifield wrote.

Third, support for the team within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that’s working with fishermen to test and improve ropeless fishing gear.

Fifield later suggested in an email that the federal government copy Canada’s gear lending program. Instead of fishermen owning the ropeless gear, they can borrow the gear during closures in the places they usually fish, he said.

“Interestingly, it was the conservation groups that created the gear lending program in Canada to help the fishermen adapt,” Fifield wrote. “In the U.S., similar groups are just spending an equivalent amount of money to sue the fishery into oblivion instead of putting the money toward really ‘saving the whales.’”