Tora Johnson's Web Log


Hey, thanks for dropping by. I have begun traveling the Eastern Seaboard talking about whales, fishermen, and their intertwined fates. In this way I am adding to the trove of stories and ideas presented in my book, Entanglements. As I continue these conversations I will upon occasion update this page with stories, observations, ideas, and questions.

If you'd like to weigh in or want to be notified when I update the site, drop me an email. Be sure to let me know if I have permission to quote your response here.

Monday, June 13, 2005

A couple of people have asked recently for more books on whales, fisheries & the sea, so I've put together a reading list. Once you're finished with Entanglements you may want to tackle some of these books.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Last month I attended a hearing in Ellsworth, Maine, where a couple hundred fishermen showed up to tell the National Marine Fisheries Service what they thought of proposed changes to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (from here on, I'll just call it "the plan"). This meeting took place in a Holiday Inn conference room, the sort of place fishermen look least comfortable, and they were looking mighty uncomfortable. We all filed in through a narrow hallway, past tables strewn with informational packets. One table had a stack of 800 page books, copies of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that was the subject of the meeting. By the way, that figure--800 pages--is no exaggeration. The document we were meant to respond to was 800 pages long.

When the seats filled up, several men stood in the back of the room, arms crossed over flannel shirts. Some hotel staff brought in more chairs, but only a few chose to sit while the others stood watch.

Why such a tense atmosphere? The people in this room stand to lose the most if the Fisheries Service implements the plan they have laid out in that ream-and-a-half of paper. The fishermen at the meeting were almost all lobstermen who fish the rocky shores of Downeast Maine, and the element of the proposed plan would require nearly all of them to link strings of traps together with rope that sinks. They currently use floating rope to link their traps, which floats free of the rocks strewn by glaciers around this part of the Gulf of Maine. If they are forced to use sinking rope instead, not only would they need to replace miles of floating line at great expense, the new line would chafe and tangle on rocks. Chafed and tangled line could lead to lost gear and dangerous hangdowns.

Buried in that 800 page document is a section that says the plan would cost New England's lobster fishery more than $14 million and could force many to leave the fishery altogether. The brunt of that cost, financial and otherwise, would be borne by the people in this room at the Ellsworth Holiday Inn, those who fish the most line in the rockiest areas.

Fishermen in Massachusetts fish on softer bottom and have already adopted sinking groundline. An animal rights group, International Fund for Animal Welfare, teamed up with the fishermen there to help pay for the new line and find a way to recycle the old floating rope.

From this perspective it would seem like the government must be out to get the Downeast Maine fishermen, and that's how many of the fishermen see it. But the plan is meant to protect whales, specifically right whales. And scientists who study the problem of whales getting tangled in fishing gear have been telling the Fisheries Service for years that they believe floating groundline--the line that links traps--to be a major cause of entanglements, in addition to those caused by the lines linking buoys to traps. Finally, the Fisheries Service is listening, but the plan as proposed doesn't deal with the most likely outcome of adopting sinking line in Maine: a vast increase in the number of buoy lines.

At the meeting, Dave Gouveia and Diane Borggaard of the Fisheries Service's Protected Species Division gave the crowd the run-down on the various forms of the proposal and said, in a rather vague way, that new measures are required because whales continue to get entangled in fishing gear. Dave explained that this meeting was to hear our responses to the six alternatives proposed, not to respond. When asked if Maine lobster gear had been involved in any right whale entanglements, Dave said he wasn't sure and that data were not completely analyzed. In fact there have been at least a few instances in the last three years in which Maine lobster gear was either known or suspected to have entangled right whales, but nobody mentioned that at the meeting.

Then Dave and Diane took their places at a table nearby, donned expressions of keen interest, and began calling people to speak from the list of those who signed up.

John Carter spoke first and asked for a show of hands from those in the room who favored the status quo. Nearly everyone in the room raised a hand. I didn't. Not only would the status quo be bad for whales, dead whales could kill the fishery if the courts decide to bring the full force of federal law to bear on the issue.

"We just want to go to work and we don't want to kill a whale," John Carter said. "One size fits all just won't work."

Unfortunately, the Fisheries Service proposal is a one-size-fits-all plan for both whales and fisheries. In the preferred version of the plan, sinking groundline would be required coastwide, no matter how rocky the habitat. The regulators have known about the problem with sinking line for Maine fishermen since the idea was first floated (no pun intended. well, maybe a little pun intended).

A couple of years ago, Terry Stockwell, with the Maine Department of Marine Resources, suggested that there might be ways to fish with floating line that kept the rope from floating too high in the water column. Dave Gouveia told the assembled fishermen in his opening remarks that the Fisheries Service was open to the idea of low-profile gear, but didn't include it in the current proposal. A cynical person might wonder what the Fisheries Service was doing with their time and money if they weren't preventing entanglements and they weren't working out low-profile gear configurations. They were navigating the Byzantine pathways of the regulatory process and faithfully enforcing DAMs (Shameless plug: to learn more about the infamous DAMs, check out chapters 8 and 12 of my book Entanglements).

Spencer Joyce spoke, pointing to the many gear configurations the fishermen have had to adopt under the whale plan over the years.

Then Jack Merrill of Cranberry Isle came to the microphone. In order to avoid hangdowns, Jack said, fishermen will shorten their trap trawls, fish with single traps, each marked with a buoy line. This will lead to a huge increase in the number of buoy lines in the water. Many heads in the crowd nodded.

Leroy Bridges is a mucky-muck in the Downeast Lobstermen's Association, and he sits on the team that advises the feds on the whale entanglement issues. He comes to the microphone. "I know that you are real good people," he said. "That's my plug, and I hope you get out of here with some skin."

I have recently submitted comments to the National Marine Fisheries Service on proposed changes to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. If you want to read the comments click here.