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'You have failed us': Maine lobstermen face federal regulators over new rules

The public meeting with NOAA came at the request of Gov. Mills and members of Congress.

PORTLAND, Maine — There were some tense moments during a public hearing with Maine lobstermen and federal regulators Wednesday night at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. 

The meeting comes after Gov. Janet Mills (D-Maine) and members of Maine's congressional delegation requested the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) visit the state to discuss tougher rules on the lobster industry. 

"Our goal is to implement the approaches under the law to comply with the law in ways that have the least effect on fishing communities," NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit said.

The new regulations include increasing zone closures and limits on traps and vertical lines. 

They are all part of an increased effort to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale from getting entangled in fishing gear.

There are reportedly fewer than 350 of the whales left in existence, according to NOAA, but most in attendance Wednesday were adamant the agency does not have the science to back up their claims. 

"Computer scenarios you folks create in your DC offices don't reflect the reality and the stories of these men and women Maine fishermen who set out on the docks before dawn and break their backs to haul traps in all weather and feed their neighbors and our state's economy with their catch." Mills said. 

The governor was booed by the crowd as she took the stage at the event. She quickly lashed back to defend herself. 

"Let me tell you something right now. This hearing almost didn't happen. Okay? It's because I got them here," Mills said. 

Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) also spoke at the event and slammed federal regulators 

"The men and women who make up Maine's iconic lobster industry face a crisis," Collins said. "I could not believe tonight when I saw the presentation that this plan is based on a solid scientific foundation."

Collins accurately noted that there has not been a reported instance of a whale entangled in Maine lobster gear since 2004, and that there has never been a reported death.

In fact, according to reports, most deaths to the North Atlantic right whale are caused by ship strikes. 

Former Republican Gov. Paul LePage, who is running to unseat Mills, also spoke in the public comment portion of the meeting.

He blamed the regulations on special interest groups and environmental activists.

"It's being funded by environmental groups and wind people," LePage said. "It isn't about NOAA. It's about the people of Maine and the fishermen of Maine."

Dozens of people, many who have fished off the Maine coast for decades, got up to speak following a presentation by regulators. All of them voiced concerns about the new rules would hurt them.

"Seems like enough is enough honestly," Lucky Oppedisano told NEWS CENTER Maine. "There isn't one lobstermen in this state that wants to hurt a whale. We just want to make a living. Provide for our families."

Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Jared Golden (D-ME) were also in attendance. Sen. Angus King (I-ME) was not at the event.

On Wednesday, Golden and king announced plans to introduce a bill blocking federal funds from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The aquarium's Seafood Watch red listed Maine lobster in September, prompting major food companies to not buy it because of the perceived threat to right whales. 

Pingree and Collins are expected to cosponsor the legislation known as the "Red Listing Monterey Bay Aquarium Act."

Public comment is being accepted through October 11, according to NOAA. Comments can be submitted online through regulations.gov using Docket #NOAA-NMFS-2022-0091.

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