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Biden to serve Maine lobster to French president as NOAA regulations loom

NOAA operates under the president and has mandated further changes to gear and fishing zone closures. The former has been stalled by a federal judge.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — President Joe Biden and first lady Dr. Jill Biden made final preparations one day before hosting French President Emmanual Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, at the White House.

It was to be the first state dinner since Biden took office.

According to a Wednesday email from the White House, "The First Lady with White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford and White House Executive Pastry Chef Susie Morrison and their teams to create the following menu for the State Dinner."

Per Biden's specifications, the heads of state and their guests would be treated to cheeses from Wisconsin and Oregon, paired with Napa Valley wines. 

But, above the appetizers and color-coordinated floral arrangements, butter-poached Maine lobster was at the very top of the menu.

Credit: AP
A table is set during a media preview for the State Dinner with President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Normally, this would not be out of place. Lobster is as beloved in France as in America and is even considered among traditional French holiday staples. But while the Bidens ordered 200 crustaceans for their most important meal in years, the administration has, in part, caused it to be absent from many a dinner table across the country over the past year. 

Exactly two weeks before Thursday's state dinner, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg ordered a two-year extension before federal regulations would take effect that would require new lobster fishing gear and fewer lines in the water — all in an effort to avoid the endangered right whale from getting entangled.

That decision is the latest chapter, as ongoing legal battles continue to throw the lobster industry into uncertainty. No right whale death has ever been attributed to Maine lobster fishing gear. But NOAA and other environmental organizations believe it still poses the greatest risk of harm to the animal.

Changes have included reinstating a federal fishing area closure from October to January, and new weak links in rope that fishermen complain could snap even under heavy storm swells — let alone a right whale.

Before the state dinner menu was released Wednesday, NEWS CENTER Maine spoke with incoming state House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, after he and Jim Thorne, R-Carmel, a member of the House Marine Resources Committee, met with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the day before to discuss potential legislation in the new Congress to push back on regulations from NOAA.

"Every time we get a bad decision, everybody throws their hands up in the air and says it was a judge's decision and completely forgets the fact that the job of our legislators is to pass laws," Faulkingham said during a virtual interview from outside the Capitol building. "This is a case where if those are the decisions of the judge and he’s just following the law, then we need to have some legislation that’s going to help us and change what’s wrong, make what’s wrong right again."

Faulkingham added he went to D.C. because he felt the time had passed to simply send angry letters, and that this was time for real action. It’s still unclear what real action might look like. Faulkingham and Collins said they were exploring multiple legislative avenues but did not specify what options were viable when going after another branch of government.

"This is not going to be easy because, unfortunately, the courts so far have upheld NOAA’s onerous and unfair regulations," Collins told NEWS CENTER Maine Wednesday.

In September, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch designated Maine lobster as a food to "avoid," directly citing a threat to right whales. Thousands of food distribution companies, including meal order giants Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, followed the recommendations and announced they would pull Maine lobster from their menus. 

On Nov. 21, Whole Foods announced it would stop buying Maine lobster. In its explanation, the company said cited the designation.

Maine's Congressional delegation and fisherman representatives had denounced the moves. During a Sept. 9 press conference, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, called the aquarium an "arrogant fish zoo," and has since proposed the Red List Monterey Bay Aquarium Act, aimed at cutting federal funding to the nonprofit. Collins is a co-sponsor. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine, introduced a companion bill in the House, with Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, signing on as a co-sponsor.

"The problem with this, so far, is that we are being penalized. In fact, they’re trying to put us out of business, based upon little or no evidence. Actually, no evidence," King told NEWS CENTER Maine Wednesday.

In an Oct. 5 letter to the delegation and Gov. Janet Mills, Julie Packard, the executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, repeatedly cited NOAA opinions when telling Maine's leaders she would not be overturning the Maine lobster "red listing."

Yet, scores of lobsters were purchased and shipped to the White House for Thursday. 

"I think that underlines how ridiculous this whole thing is," King said.

"I am glad President Biden and his state dinner guests had the opportunity to enjoy Maine lobster, a product that we are incredibly proud of here in Maine," Mills wrote in a statement Thursday morning. "I also urge him and his administration to recognize that all Maine lobstermen want is the opportunity to continue providing this product for people to enjoy without the Federal government crushing them under the weight of burdensome, scientifically-questionable regulations."

The move could leave some Mainers asking why the lobsters, which were deemed unsustainable by scientists who answer to the president, were acceptable to serve at a dinner party.

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