A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts, March 28, 2018. Credit: Michael Dwyer | AP

Maine’s congressional delegation wrote Tuesday to federal officials to express concern that ongoing efforts to decrease the death of right whales will have a significant impact on Maine’s lobster industry.

The delegation asked National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration leaders to ensure that decisions made by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team are based on “sound” and “comprehensive” science, that risk reduction standards are equitable across the United States and Canada, and that the lobster industry is consulted throughout the decision-making process, according to a release from Maine’s four members of Congress.

The new efforts to protect right whales are driven by the federal Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Because of the current endangered status of right whales, if Maine fails to come up with a plan to protect the whales, NOAA will determine what action is taken, according to Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

[Deep Gulf of Maine has been warming twice as fast as the surface, study finds]

The task force set a goal of reducing right whale mortality by 60 percent to 80 percent, and met last month with a group of approximately 60 fishermen, scientists and conservationists joining state and federal officials to discuss ways to further reduce serious injury and mortality of endangered North Atlantic right whales caused by trap/pot fishing gear.

They hope to agree on measures that would reduce serious injuries and deaths of right whales caused by fishing gear in U.S. waters from Maine to Florida to fewer than one whale per year, the level prescribed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to NOAA.

The whale protection task force has proposed measures in Maine including removing 50 percent of vertical lines from the Gulf of Maine and the use of a weak rope topper, Keliher said.

In April, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, asked federal officials to reconsider regulations meant to protect right whales after Maine lobstermen said the proposed changes would significantly harm their livelihoods.

“As you are aware, Maine fisheries officials and stakeholders have been actively engaged on the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team and in correspondence with NOAA Fisheries, with the primary objective of providing the most relevant data possible to ensure that the resulting measures target areas of high risk and yield conservation benefits possible for right whales,” the letter from Maine’s delegation states. “We have been closely monitoring these developments and appreciate the opportunity to raise with you some concerns that are of great ecological and economic importance.”

[Rare baby right whale seen in Cape Cod Bay for first time in 2019]

Among the concerns expressed are differing standards required in each Lobster Conservation Management Area.

“While lobstermen and regulators in Maine have put forward a plan to reduce the fleet’s vertical lines by 50 percent, other states and lobster fishing areas have not done the same,” the letter states, adding the delegation believes NOAA must hold all Lobster Conservation Management Areas to the same standard.

The delegation is also concerned that NOAA’s methodology assumes the risk in Canadian and U.S. waters is the same, despite “strong scientific and empirical evidence to the contrary.”

They also urged NOAA to submit a tool used to poll members to a peer review process.

The delegation asked how NOAA will ensure that all proposals are held to the same standard, to achieve the required 60 percent risk reduction target; how NOAA plans to hold Canadian fisheries accountable; and how NOAA plans to work with Maine’s lobster industry “to protect and maintain the diversification of the fleet as right whale take reduction efforts move forward?”

[Fewer lobster trap lines and weaker ropes recommended to protect right whales]

The Maine Department of Marine Resources will hold the following meetings to present draft proposal options to the lobster industry: Zone A, Tuesday, June 18, Washington Academy Gym, 66 Cutler Road, Machias; Zone B, Tuesday, June 4, Trenton Elementary School Gym, 51 School Road, Trenton; Zone C, Thursday, June 6, Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School, Reach Performing Arts Center, 249 N. Deer Isle Road, Deer Isle; Zone D, Thursday, June 20, Camden Hills Regional High School Gym, 25 Keelson Drive, Rockport; Zone E, Thursday, June 13, Wiscasset Middle High School Gym, 272 Gardiner Road, Wiscasset; Zone F, Thursday, June 27, Freeport High School, Freeport Performing Arts Center, 30 Holbrook St., Freeport; and Zone G, Monday, June 10, Kennebunk High School Auditorium, 89 Fletcher St., Kennebunk.

All meetings will begin at 6 p.m.

NOAA plans to hold four meetings in Maine to allow the state to consult with the industry on its proposal, according to the delegation.