Report urges lobstermen to reduce traps in U.S.

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HALIFAX, Nova Scotia (AP) – American lobstermen working the Gulf of Maine should set fewer traps and shorten their season to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, says a new report that compares the Canadian and U.S. fisheries.

The report, published in Tuesday’s edition of the journal Current Biology, says the changes would reduce the number of whales that get entangled in fishing gear without having much impact on the multimillion-dollar U.S. lobster industry.

Boris Worm, a Halifax-based biologist and one of the study’s authors, notes that Canadian lobstermen working the gulf use far fewer traps during a shorter fishing season but still manage to catch a comparably large number of lobsters.

While the recommendations were greeted with skepticism by the head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Worm insists U.S. fishermen would benefit from the restrictions.

“We see this as a classic win-win situation,” said Worm, stressing that reducing the number of traps would not result in significantly fewer lobsters being caught.

“Let’s think about how we manage (the fishery) so that it’s best for fishermen and other species that may be endangered.”

Although right whales have been a protected species for 70 years, they remain under threat of extinction.

It’s believed there are only 350 of the large mammals left on the east coast of North America.

Many of them spend their summers in the Bay of Fundy. Starting in October and November, most of them migrate through the Gulf of Maine to warmer waters in the south.

While some right whales succumb to ship strikes, the report says “75 percent of appropriately photographed whales show evidence of entanglement, predominately with lobster fishing gear.”

The report notes that lobstermen on the Canadian side of the gulf – an area off the southwest coast of Nova Scotia – catch lobster only in the winter and use far fewer traps than the Americans, who fish year-round.

The study cites data from the 2003 lobster season, when Canadians set more than 760,000 traps over 185 days. Americans used more than 3 million traps over the entire year.

While U.S. lobstermen catch about 30 percent more lobster in the course of a year, the report says the American fishing effort has left the fishery “severely overexploited.”

The report also recommends a reduction of the Canadian fishery.

David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said reducing the number of traps could help reduce costs, but the move would do little to help the whales.

Cousens said the traps are set in areas that are not frequented by right whales.

“Where 99 percent of our traps are, there aren’t any right whales,” he said. “We’re for saving right whales, we don’t want to entangle right whales.”

Worm said there have been sightings off the Maine coast, but added the population is very small and sightings in some areas are rare.

Cousens, who has been fishing lobster for 30 years, said if the American lobster season wasn’t year-round, it would have to take place at different times of the year than the Canadian season.

“It would have to be a spring fishery and a fall fishery,” Cousens said. “We wouldn’t want to compete head-to-head with the Canadians. That just wouldn’t make sense, and it would be bad for the market.”

The study does not specify when a shortened American fishery should take place, but points out that one, particular U.S. fishery that is closed in the summer while lobster are molting “yields a higher quality product” and better prices.

On Monhegan island in Maine, lobstermen fish a shorter season and use a reduced number of traps – a measure a local fisherman says was aimed at conserving the lobster population.

The small island, home to about 60 residents in the winter, voluntarily restricts its season to six months starting Dec. 1.

“It’s been very good for the island, it’s given us something to do in the winter here,” said Doug Boynton, a lobsterman who works in construction when the fishery is closed.

“I think anybody that thinks they can make a living just from the ocean is probably making a mistake, because we’ve overfished and the opportunities aren’t there.”

AP-ES-01-08-07 1309EST

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