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Ailish O’Brien is a student at Bowdoin College, where she is an environmental studies and political science double major.
The Legislature’s recent passage of LD 1916, An Act to Create a Legal Defense Fund for the Maine Lobster Industry, shows a clear move by the state to protect its lobstermen from assumed federal government oversight. The issue boils down to lobstermen’s need to fight against increased regulations from the National Atmospheric and Ocean Administration that aim to protect right whales, recently shutting off nearly 1,000 square miles of Maine water to lobster fishing from October to January.
LD 1916, sponsored by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, allocates money from an existing lobster license surcharge to help fund the legal battle against these tough regulations in the courtroom. Lobstermen have argued that the regulations aimed at protecting right whales are unfounded and not science-based. Some have argued that a right whale has not been found in the waters that have been closed off by NOAA since 2010. It seems that the state is siding with lobstermen here, which is critical if Gov. Janet Mills aims to protect the lobstering industry going forward.
However, there is a communication failure between lobster industry stakeholders and the federal government, one in which insight from those on the water is too often ignored. LD 1916 would not be necessary if the regulations from NOAA considered lobstermen and fishermen first. Now the burden of protecting right whales is falling largely on lobstermen who are rarely if at all, it seems, impacting their survival rates.
It is not that protecting right whales, an endangered species, is not important. It’s that the method of doing so puts a disproportionate burden on Mainers who could be part of the solution.
I am not saying that protective measures for endangered species should not exist. It is necessary in certain cases for the federal government to fund research and devise strategies to support the environment when state or municipal governments are either unable or unwilling to do so. I see no problem with top-down approaches to solving environmental issues, but when environmental justice is not a key part of the process, it will fail — case and point is the mere existence of LD 1916. Local people with local knowledge often know best and can help the federal government produce sustainable outcomes.
If anything, LD 1916 should be a lesson for federal regulators to include lobstermen when deciding to make policies that directly impact them. I have faith that the Lobster Defense Fund can support lobstermen in the courtroom and shed light on the lack of synergy between federal, state, and municipal stakeholders. An industry so critical to Maine’s future deserves support from its legislators, practitioners, and Maine residents to come up with solutions that can both protect animals like the right whale and the livelihood of lobstermen.