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Lobstermen get rules meant to help whales

PORTLAND, Maine - New federal regulations will ban lobstermen from using floating rope in much of the Gulf of Maine to protect whales from entanglement in fishing gear.

Maine lobstermen say the new rules will be financially burdensome, while doing little if anything to protect whales.

Others say that more needs to be done to protect whales, especially endangered North Atlantic right whales, which number between 300 and 350.

The National Marine Fisheries Service submitted its whale-protection measures along the Eastern Seaboard to the Federal Register on Monday.

Maine's nearshore waters are exempt from the rules, which are to go into effect next October. But the rules will apply in waters 3 miles or more offshore.

Lobstermen will have to spend $10,000 to $12,000 on average to comply with the rules, said Clive Farrin, a Boothbay Harbor lobsterman and president of the Downeast Lobstermen's Association. It's doubtful, he said, that manufacturers will have enough rope to go around.

"This is going to be devastating for Maine lobstermen," Farrin said.

But officials of the Ocean Conservancy believe the regulations do not go far enough, said Vicki Cornish of the Washington-based conservation organization.

"Whales that travel through Maine state waters may encounter a spiderweb of lines created by the large number of lobster traps," Cornish said. "This spiderweb of lines greatly increases the risk to whales."

The regulations have been years in the making.

The most contentious part of the rules will ban the use of floating groundlines that are used to connect traps on the ocean bottom. The rule is designed to keep whales from swimming into the lines and becoming entangled.

But sinking rope can be unsafe because it can snag on rocky ocean bottom, and Maine lobstermen are shouldering 90 percent of the economic burden of the rule, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association.

What is most troubling, McCarron said, is the feeling that the rule won't help whales because they don't swim where most lobstermen put their traps.

"Our fishermen don't overlap with the whales," she said.

Governor John Baldacci and US Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, wrote letters to federal officials last month, asking them to reconsider the rules.

Baldacci and Snowe urged William Hogarth, head of the Fisheries Service, to consider a delay in implementing the rule until at least June 1, 2010.

Snowe, whose office was provided a copy of the final rule on Monday, said the regulations will unfairly force thousands of lobstermen to change their fishing gear.

She said she was "deeply troubled by the National Marine Fisheries Service's unacceptable decision to issue final regulations that drastically, unfairly, and unnecessarily impact Maine's lobster industry."

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