PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s congressional delegation is using the $1.7 trillion federal spending bill to try to delay for six years new protections for endangered whales to protect Maine’s lobster industry.
The amendment would leave existing lobster fishing regulations in place for the time being, thwarting new restrictions aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales, which are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear. A federal judge previously delayed new rules until 2024 to give the government time to craft them. The congressional proposal would extend the status quo until the end of 2028.
Maine's congressional delegation and Democratic governor presented a united front, saying the new rules would “not meaningfully protect" right whales while threatening the state's signature fishery — and thousands of families.
“The fact is — there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear,” the statement from Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Gov. Janet Mills said. Without the delay, they said, “Maine’s iconic industry could be facing a complete shutdown.”
The Conservation Law Foundation and several other environmental organizations decried the move, saying it could hasten the demise of the whales, which number about 340. Congress is under pressure to approve the spending bill by midnight Friday or face the prospect of a partial government shutdown.
"Sneaking this move into a spending bill is a profound and disturbing end run around the legal system,” Erica Fuller, CLF senior attorney, said Tuesday in a statement.
Gib Brogan, with the ocean conservation group Oceana, accused Congress of deciding “to play politics with the survival of a critically endangered species.”
“A hundred years from now, no one will remember or care about the trivial victories Democrats will try to claim in this legislation, but they’ll mourn the loss of the right whale,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Conservation groups have pushed for a different type of fishing gear to avoid entanglements, which along with boat strikes are one of the two big threats to the whales.
The lobster fishing industry contends there’s no evidence to suggest lobster gear is to blame for entanglements. And fishermen argue that stricter rules could cripple the industry.
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said congressional intervention was necessary because the “federal rulemaking process intended to protect right whales is broken.”
“The rhetoric from national advocacy organizations claiming that this important legislation will lead to the ‘extinction’ of the right whale is contrary to undisputed science, false, and meant to serve only their fringe interests," she said in a statement.
In an interview with NEWS CENTER Maine, Virginia Olsen from the Maine Lobstering Union called the six-year extension vital for the preservation of the industry.
"We desperately need the six years. We need the six years to get this information and get it correctly ... How can we move forward so that we're protecting the right whale and we can have a fishery in the state of Maine," Olsen said.
For other fishermen in the industry, they're welcoming of the six years, but remain skeptical, like Greg Turner who fishes in the now seasonally closed Area 1 region.
"What they're asking us to do is impossible in two years ... I mean, it's like going along with them and admitting you're doing something you're not doing," Turner said.
Turner has fished for 55 years and said he's open to ropeless traps if someone would teach him and ensure the traps wouldn't tangle over each other under the ocean.
"It's been discouraging, a lot of people have already given up this year. When you can't make no money, you can't make good money," Turner added.
A pair of sustainability organizations, Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch, have withdrawn certifications for Gulf of Maine lobster because of concerns about whales, and supermarket giant Whole Foods pulled lobster from its stores, including one in Portland.