Lobstermen work off the coast of Kennebunkport, Maine, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. Maine Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday, Sept. 13, the federal government is moving ahead too quickly with potential new restrictions on the lobster fishing industry, which has been accused of entangling whales with their fishing gear. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Even as lobstermen scramble to meet recent regulatory requirements aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales, federal regulators are moving ahead with a new round of additional restrictions. The National Marine Fisheries Service is proposing another round of rules that could require even more gear changes from lobstermen in Maine and other New England states and put more of the region’s waters off limits to lobster harvesting to reduce the risk of right whales becoming entangled in fishing gear.

In addition to moving forward on a rapid timeline with limited opportunity for input, federal regulators are considering these additional restrictions without adequate assessment of the impacts of changes that have already been made and without sharing needed information with fishermen and other interested groups that would show how and where the fisheries and right whales interact.

Given the extent of the proposed changes, and the potential gravity of their impact, the agency should slow down and strongly consider viable alternatives presented by fishermen, who spend their days on the ocean and are knowledgeable about their gear.

The urgency is driven in large part by recent court decisions that have found that the National Marine Fisheries Service is not doing enough to protect right whales, which are endangered.

In July, a federal judge ruled that federal regulators are failing to adequately protect right whales, which is a violation of the Endangered Species Act. The judge asked the parties to the lawsuit – conservation groups, lobster industry groups and regulators – to come up with better ways to protect the whales. That work is ongoing through court filings.

Meanwhile, NMFS is now moving at lightning speed to seek a 90 percent reduction in the risk to whales posed by the lobster and crab fisheries, mainly through entanglement in lines connected to buoys and traps. NMFS is looking for ideas on how to meet this target, which is a much higher risk reduction in a much shorter time than was set by the agency just last year.

The most direct way to reduce risk is to put areas off limits to these fisheries and to reduce the amount of rope that they use. One proposal NMFS is considering is a complete closure of the lobster fishery in federal waters. This would impact about 1,100 Maine lobstermen. Another proposal calls for a 50 percent reduction in lines and rolling closures of lobstering areas.

The agency has set an extremely short timeline for public comment on these proposed changes. It has scheduled only one online meeting for public input. Comments can be submitted online through Oct. 11.

Gov. Janet Mills and all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation have asked the Department of Commerce, which includes NMFS, to extend the public comment period and to hold in-person meetings in the state, which is home to most of the nation’s lobster fishing.

“The opportunities for public comment are completely insufficient given the potential for extraordinary impacts that are likely to be felt by fishermen and communities up and down the eastern seaboard, and especially here in Maine,” Mills wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on Tuesday.

The governor also asked the agency to share a modeling tool that overlays fishing data with data on right whale activity to try to assess how changes in the fishery will impact whales.

This is a reasonable request that the agency should agree to.

“NMFS should not prioritize expediency when doing so compromises the very survival of Maine’s lobster fishery. This approach will also undermine stakeholder faith in the process and may ultimately yield a new regulatory framework that does not provide additional protections for right whales while potentially shutting down the entire lobster industry,” Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree, and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, wrote in a letter to NMFS on Tuesday.

We understand the urgency that recent court orders have placed on the agency and that further restrictions are meant to better protect right whales. But, we remain troubled that such drastic measures are being taken without  better evidence of the impact of lobster harvesting on the right whale population.

Last year, for example, federal regulators closed 950 square miles of ocean off the coast of Maine to traditional lobster fishing from October to January. Requirements to use ropes and links that break when significant pressure is applied, as would happen when a whale is entangled, were also enacted.

These rules were implemented even though the agency itself said it was unclear how most right whales died and for those that were entangled in fishing gear, where that gear came from. Many are killed in collisions with ships. Federal regulators have proposed new restrictions on vessel speeds on some areas to reduce these collisions that are available for public comment until Sept. 30.

A judge’s ruling last week makes it clear that NMFS can move ahead with further restrictions on the lobster industry. However, making sure those restrictions actually protect right whales is an important part of any analysis. NMFS can’t do that without better information, some of which will come from lobstermen, who need to be more fully involved in this process.

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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...