President Donald Trump speaks at a roundtable with fisheries stakeholders in the Bangor International Airport before traveling to Guilford to tour a medical swab factory. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

President Donald Trump’s visit to Maine last week was about image and messaging. That’s how a proclamation to weaken protections at a marine monument far off the coast of Massachusetts was sold as a boon, even a savior, to Maine commercial fishermen.

Before he headed to Guilford to tour a plant that makes swabs used in coronavirus tests, the president held a roundtable in Bangor with fishermen and others in the industry — although about half the conversation was between Trump and former Maine Gov. Paul LePage, who the president appointed Friday to oversee a fisheries task force. The centerpiece of the meeting was the president signing a proclamation to allow more commercial fishing in the only marine monument on the east coast.

The Northeast Canyon and Seamounts Marine National Monument was created by executive order in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama. The protected area contains three underwater canyons, one of them deeper than the Grand Canyon, and four underwater mountains that were volcanoes. It is home to diverse wildlife, including corals not found anywhere else. Scientists recently discovered that Atlantic puffins use the area as a wintering area. The combination of deep sea and tall mountains provides a breeding and nursing ground for an array of sea life, including lobsters.

Watch: Trump holds fisheries roundtable

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Creating a monument to protect the nearly 5,000 square mile area has long been opposed by commercial fishermen, despite the fact that less than 5 percent of the regional fishing catch comes from the area, which is south of Cape Cod.

The impact of changing the rules for the monument are virtually meaningless for Maine fishermen.

David Sullivan, a representative of the Maine Lobstering Union, told the Bangor Daily News that the attention Trump paid to his industry’s concerns were a good first step. But he said the focus on the monument was misplaced.

Not only are the waters in the monument far from Maine, but it is unclear if Trump has the legal authority to change the rules for national monuments. Therefore, legal challenges are expected.

In the meantime, commercial crabbing and lobstering were already allowed in the monument, although they were to be phased out by 2023.

The administration has long sought to weaken the protections for many national monuments to allow more oil and gas drilling, logging and mining. It even tried to hide information about the benefits of monuments and that contradicted the narrative that resource protections that come with national monuments hurt industry, The Washington Post reported in 2018.

One member of the monument review team suggested removing language from a memo that showed that commercial fishing vessels caught less than 5 percent of their landings from areas within the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument. The information “undercut the case for the commercial fishing closure being harmful,” the member wrote.

The fishing industry representatives who attended the meeting at the Bangor International Airport did try to bring up issues that are actually harming their industry. Kristan Porter, the president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, sought to bring attention to the ongoing debate over how to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales without unduly burdening the state’s lobster industry.

Trump spent more time bad mouthing the Obama administration and wondering whether the Navy or Coast Guard keeps boats from other countries from fishing for lobster than talking about what he called “white whales.” After Porter explained that the right whales are not in the monument area, they are off the coast of Maine, Trump said he’d help the lobstermen but wanted to protect the whales too.

A discussion about the impact of tariffs on the state’s fisheries was equally garbled and fact challenged.

After China imposed tariffs on lobster, LePage said, Maine’s lobster exports to China dropped from 600,000 pounds to 100,000 pounds.

He wasn’t even close. In the first half of 2019, America exported about 2.2 million pounds of lobster to China, according to data from the U.S. federal government. The country exported nearly 12 million pounds to China during that same period the previous year, the Associated Press reported. About 85 percent of the U.S. lobster landings are in Maine.

The Chinese tariff was imposed because of tariffs the Trump administration had imposed on Chinese goods imported to the United States. This wasn’t mentioned on Friday.

Maine’s fishing industry faced many challenges — lack of demand because of the coronavirus pandemic, competition with Canada, endangered species protection and the regulations that come with it. They deserve serious attention, not nearly meaningless proclamations.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...