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In recent weeks, Maine’s lobster industry has faced a series of unexpected challenges. Lobstermen, along with Gov. Janet Mills and the state’s congressional delegation, were outraged about a warning from an environmental group that urged consumers not to buy lobsters from Maine because of the risk the fishery poses to endangered North Atlantic right whales.
This red-listing was followed by news from federal regulators that they planned to place further restrictions on lobster harvesting much sooner than expected. They planned to do so with no meetings in Maine, which is home to the vast majority of the nation’s lobster fishermen. Mills and the state’s congressional delegation successfully lobbied for a meeting here, which was held Wednesday night in Portland. They are now asking for another meeting in Downeast Maine.
That anger was apparent at the session held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Lobstermen are right to be angry about potential new rules when it remains unclear that the whales, which are protected under the Endangered Species, are being entangled in rope used by Maine fishermen. Recent research shows that whales do get entangled in fishing gear off the coast of the U.S. and Canada, but the origins of that gear is often unclear, and whales are far more likely to die from collisions with boats than entanglements.
But, the fight against potential new rules has gone a bit off the rails as politicians have now called for the defunding of part of NOAA and the California aquarium affiliated with Seafood Watch, the group that put lobster on its warning list because it said the fishery endangered right whales.
These calls may be popular among lobstermen, but they distract from the work at hand, which needs to be focused on bringing better scientific information to the efforts to protect right whales, without unnecessary harm to Maine’s lobster industry. It should also focus on potentially rewriting federal laws that fail to adequately consider the economic harm that can result from rules that jeopardize an industry without adequate evidence of its impact on a protected species.
“Maine lobstermen have taken unprecedented steps to protect right whales, efforts that the federal government … and the federal courts failed to recognize,” Mills said at the session, which was attended by about 200 people.
Part of the problem is that NOAA’s regulations are driven in large part by the courts, not scientific analysis. Last year, the agency announced new rules to reduce the risk posed to whales, by reducing the amount of rope in the water and by putting some parts of the ocean off limits to lobster and crab fishing.
A federal judge ruled in July that those restrictions were insufficient because too many whales could still die.
Rather than imposing his own solution, he asked the parties to the lawsuit, which includes conservation groups, fishing industry groups and regulators, to come up with a better plan. That work is ongoing through court filings.
However, it is proceeding 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.
With the most recent rulemaking driven by a court, we realize it may be hard for federal regulators to slow down. But, a more deliberative process, with better data, is needed before further restrictions are implemented.