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Lobster fishing will face new restrictions to try to save whales; Maine Delegation and Gov. Mills opposed

Opponents say the changes will 'destroy the industry'

PORTLAND, Maine — America’s lobster fishing industry will face a host of new harvesting restrictions amid a new push from the federal government to try to save a vanishing species of whale.

The prospect of new rules has loomed over the profitable lobster industry for years and were announced Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

They are designed to protect the North Atlantic right whale. The whales number only about 360 and they are vulnerable to lethal entanglement in fishing gear.

The changes are designed to reduce entanglements in fishing gear, which is one of two leading causes of serious injury or death in right whales, NOAA said.

They come amid what NOAA describes as an Unusual Mortality Event, with an increased number of dead or seriously injured North Atlantic right whales documented since 2017.

In a united display of opposition to the new rules, Maine's Congressional Delegation and Gov. Janet Mills issued the following joint statement Tuesday:

“The Maine lobster fishery has repeatedly made significant improvements to their practices and modifications to their gear to protect right whales, including the implementation of weak link mandates in 1997 and again in 2007. Notably, there has not been a single right whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster fisheries in nearly two decades. In recent years, the Delegation and the Mills Administration, including the Maine Department of Marine Resources, have worked closely with the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Maine Lobstering Union, and other stakeholders to ensure that their input was received by NMFS with the goal of regulations that are fair, safe, and reflect the reality in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, the final rule does not meet those standards.”

We agree that we must protect the fragile right whale population, but we must do so without endangering human lives or livelihoods. It is unacceptable that Maine lobstermen and women continue to be the primary target of burdensome regulations despite the multiple effective mitigation measures they have taken and the data showing that ship strikes and Canadian snow crab gear pose substantially greater risks to right whales. We will continue to work with our partners in the lobster industry to support this vital part of Maine’s economy and heritage.” 

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Gov. Janet Mills

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson also criticized the new regulations in a statement Tuesday:

“The new federal regulations are an affront to the men and women who have made a living on Maine’s working waterfront for generations. For years, lobstermen have adapted to new regulations designed to protect endangered species while providing for their families. They’ve done their part to preserve and protect our environment because their livelihood depends on it. So for the federal government to impose wide-reaching regulations on Maine lobstermen when there is not a shred of evidence to suggest these men and women are responsible for any right whale deaths is a slap in the face. It’s also not surprising. We see this in the logging industry all of the time. Instead of going after the people and entities responsible for causing the problem or violating rules, federal regulators impose blanket regulations on working men and women — regulations that only make people at the top feel good but do nothing to solve the actual problem.

I’m deeply disappointed that NOAA has decided to dismiss the voices of Maine’s lobstering workforce and chosen to go ahead with damaging regulations that do nothing more than hurt our fishermen, while the real threat to right whales remains — Canadian ships.”

The advocacy group Protect Maine's Fishing Heritage Foundation called the decision "incredulous."

"Maine lobstermen and women are not killing right whales," spokeswoman Crystal Canney said in a release. "Why would you penalize an iconic Maine industry for the sake of being able to say you are saving right whales? It’s like cutting off an arm when it’s the foot that is the problem and pretending you have fixed the problem. This industry is under fire from every direction – right whales and large industrial aquaculture. The whale deaths are not in Maine nor at the hands of Maine lobstermen.”

Also on Tuesday, Demi Kouzounas, chairwoman of the Maine GOP, agreed, saying in a release that the decision "will destroy the industry and decimate local economies who have relied on lobstering for generations."

But some environmental groups worry the "weak rules" leave the critically endangered whales still in danger. 

Whitney Webber, campaign director for the ocean conservation advocacy organization Oceana, said in a statement Tuesday that "the rule must be strengthened immediately":

“After four years of rulemaking, it’s disheartening that despite the legal obligation to be stewards of North Atlantic right whales and help them recover, the government has once again failed to take aggressive action. North Atlantic right whales are sliding closer toward extinction due to known, human-caused risks, including fishing gear entanglements. In February of this year, an 11-year-old male known as ‘Cottontail’ was found dead off South Carolina after being entangled in fishing gear for months. With only around 360 whales remaining, there is no room for shortsighted solutions. We can recover this species, but it will take meaningful, strong regulations to keep deaths below one per year —the level the National Marine Fisheries Service says is needed to support recovery.

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s overreliance on weak rope, which is designed to break with the strength of an adult whale, is insufficient because it continues to put calves and juveniles directly in harm’s way. Proven management tools that will reduce interactions with the roughly 1 million fishing lines are available, yet the government declined to consider these tools because they were ‘unpopular with stakeholders.’ Oceana and its members are stakeholders in this crisis as well. This disregard for public comment by the Biden administration is disappointing.

Oceana is committed to ensuring North Atlantic right whales have meaningful protection from all threats across their range, from Florida to eastern Canada. As it stands, this rule leaves the whales vulnerable and jeopardizes their future, as well as the future of the U.S. lobster and crab fisheries, which could be shut down if North Atlantic right whales are not protected. There’s no time to waste — the rule must be strengthened immediately with expanded time/area management and effective monitoring if North Atlantic right whales are to survive. The Biden administration is now responsible for the future of North Atlantic right whales in U.S. waters — Oceana urges the administration to not let extinction of this iconic species be its legacy.”