Faces of Ocean Planning: Lobsterman Richard Nelson

From his view aboard the FV Pescadero, lobsterman Richard Nelson has witnessed a lot of change along the coastline of Friendship, Maine, over the last 30-plus years.

A proud Mainer with roots generations deep, Richard feels at home on the water along the mouth of Muscongus Bay and within sight of the region’s rocky beaches and island communities.

Throughout the last three decades, Richard has watched Friendship – a small, quiet fishing community – face increasing demands on its coastal ecosystem from both fishing and competing maritime projects.

And with more new development inevitably on the horizon, Richard wonders: Are the powers that be – the state and federal agencies that make decisions about new development projects – communicating not only with each other, but with the people and businesses that call this place home?

Like all fishermen along the Maine coast, Richard views lobstering as much more than a way to earn a living. It’s a way of life that defines the rich culture, maritime history, and very identity of the people who reside along this rugged shoreline and on nearby islands.

With the Gulf of Maine facing a rapid increase in human presence and competing demands – both established and new ­– the buzz around ocean management is growing. But how can communities like Friendship, where livelihoods are inextricably linked to the sea, ensure a level playing field in ocean management conversations when they’re competing to be heard among industry, federal and state agencies, and other ocean stakeholders?

The National Ocean Policy

The answer to this question has come in the form of the National Ocean Policy, enacted by executive order in 2010. It offers the solution of regional ocean planning, which, for Richard, gave the chance for his community to be engaged.

Richard has been heavily involved in New England’s regional ocean planning process since it began. He’s attended  workshops, seminars, and conferences hosted by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Northeast Regional Ocean Council, Bowdoin College, and the URI International Symposium on Marine Spatial Planning, and he has vocalized his perspective as a local fisherman at every Northeast Regional Planning Body meeting for more than three years.

His message has always been consistent: If local lobstermen in communities like Friendship are displaced as a result of poor stakeholder communication or driven out by larger competitors, they can’t simply move on and begin anew. Their economic survival and way of life depends upon being able to thrive where they are.

Richard has pressed the Regional Planning Body to envision a regional ocean plan that offers a balanced understanding between long-standing industries like the lobster fishery – and its reliance on a healthy ocean ecosystem and resources – alongside offshore wind energy, recreation, shipping, and other newer ocean uses, so they can all continue to thrive in New England.

Everybody wins

Furthermore, the data available to all parties as a result of the regional ocean plan will improve state and federal understanding of the health of the ocean’s ecosystem. Backed by the best available science, fisheries management can be improved to ensure continued access to fishing grounds while building a sustainable fishery.

The use of centralized data by federal and state entities is important not just for fisheries management. It’s also key to other regulatory actions related to marine life, marine habitat, and human uses, in that it will better inform ocean management decisions across the board.

For maritime communities like Friendship, the regional ocean plan represents a formal effort to recognize and include local community perspectives and needs, like Richard Nelson’s hope of keeping the F/V Pescadero afloat and working for years to come.

The draft of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan will be released May 25, 2016, followed by a public comment period. Conservation Law Foundation and NEOAN (The New England Ocean Action Network) will work together to analyze and inform New Englanders about the key elements of the plan through blog posts, webinars, and more. More information will be available soon. By the fall, the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan will be finalized by the National Ocean Council.

Detangling the Risks of Fishing Line for Right Whales

We have many reasons to appreciate the role of modern technology in today’s fisheries. Electronics, equipment upgrades, and other technological advances have led to more efficient, effective, and economical fisheries. However, in the case of modern fishing line, these technological advances have at times come at a serious cost.

Unlike the natural hemp and sisal lines used in decades past, modern fishing line is made from polypropylene, a synthetic material that makes fishing lines and ropes much stronger and more durable than ever before.

Stronger fishing lines may lead to more effective fishing, but when animals – specifically the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale – encounter this fishing line, the risk of entanglement and death is high.

For endangered right whales, stakes are high

This threat to right whales has been the focus of Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium, for several years. In an article published by Canada’s CBC on fishing line and the risk for lethal entanglement, Knowlton is quoted saying how this risk is “the biggest threat to these animals right now . . . and unless we can fix it, they could go extinct.”

Knowlton describes how this fishing line frequently gets into their mouths when right whales come in contact with it, which causes them to panic and roll around in an attempt to get free. This motion only causes the line to wrap more around their body, and potentially their flukes, impairing their ability to eat and move.

The frequency of this type of entanglement is alarming, with more than 80 percent of the right whale population showing signs of scarring from synthetic fishing lines. Often, the whales cannot break free from the constraining fishing line because of the incredible strength of the new materials used to make it. This fatal entrapment is a leading cause of death for the already struggling North Atlantic right whale population.

Finding a balanced solution

Knowlton is optimistic about finding solutions for this problem, noting that cooperation and collaboration between the fishing industry and manufacturers could lead to the development of a material for lines and rope that can be strong enough for its intended purpose, but not enough to endanger the lives of right whales.

That all involved parties are invested in finding a solution to this problem exemplifies the foundation of effective ocean management that can be accomplished through a regional ocean plan. While this is just a small micro example of interested parties working together (the regional ocean plan won’t identify solutions for fishing line), on a macro level, these principles can be applied to better management of our ocean resources through collaboration and the use of data. With better information and enhanced coordination, we’re much more likely to be able to effectively identify solutions to these types of challenges.

Ocean planning – a process dedicated to finding solutions to problems before they happen by creating a framework to better anticipate needs, set priorities, and make decisions regarding regional ocean uses – has the potential to positively inform these important conversations.

On a small scale, Knowlton, the fishermen, and the industry are finding a solution to address this specific issue. But on a large scale, a developed ocean plan (that all ocean users abide by) can include acknowledgement of fishing grounds and right whale migration routes and other important factors, allowing for a better mutual understanding of what’s at stake – and pave the way for future decision-making that is better informed and more effective for all involved parties.

Conservation Law Foundation has been actively engaged in the ocean planning process in New England from the beginning, and is committed to ensuring that management measures include safeguards for ocean ecosystems. The Northeast Regional Ocean Plan draft will be available soon, and we all have a responsibility to take part it in it – for the sake of the endangered right whale, our fisheries and coastal economies, and our ocean ecosystems.

Read more about the current status of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan.