Lobster boats fill a cove in Stonington as the sun starts to set on Sept. 15, 2022. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

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There may be a bit of good news on the horizon for Maine’s lobster industry. In a recent court filing, an environmental group said it supported a longer time frame for new rules to protect North Atlantic right whales from becoming entangled in lobster gear.

This is a positive development – and should be supported by the federal judge who is overseeing two cases related to federal regulation of lobster harvesting – because the additional time is needed to better understand how and where whales interact (or don’t interact) with lobster gear. With this information, federal regulators can develop better, more effective rules to protect whales without overburdening lobstermen.

Here’s the catch, however. The environmental group leading the lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity, is continuing to push for very strict rules, including a switch to ropeless fishing to protect right whales.

Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, told the Bangor Daily News editorial board he was “cautiously optimistic” about the center’s latest court filing and the prospect of giving regulators more time to develop better ways to manage the lobster fishery to protect whales. The longer timetable also gives the state time to pursue other remedies through Congress and another court case that is proceeding quickly through a federal appeals court.

As we, and others, have said numerous times, stricter rules should not be put in place until it is clear whether Maine lobster gear is posing a threat to right whales, which are more likely to be killed by collisions with boats than by entanglements.

By giving regulators more time, new rules can be based on better science and better tailored to the realities of right whale migration and lobster fishing. For example, regulators could rely more on what is called dynamic management, Keliher explained. In this system, areas of the ocean can be closed to fishing when whales are in the area. To be effective, whale movements need to be better monitored, through flights over the ocean and acoustic listening devices, which are increasingly being used off the coast of Maine.

Such responsive measures would be better than the widespread gear changes and massive, longer-term closed areas that the fisheries agencies have proposed and used in the past.

This case began in 2018 when the Center for Biological Diversity sued Wilbur Ross, then the head of the U.S. Department of Commerce, claiming that the department was not doing enough to protect right whales, which are an endangered species. The Commerce Department includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulate federal fisheries.

The federal judge overseeing the case ruled earlier this year that NOAA’s rules were too weak. He asked the center, federal regulators and other parties, including the state of Maine, to develop better rules.

The Center for Biological Diversity had initially asked that those rules be put in place in six months, which set off a scramble in NOAA to write much more stringent rules. As part of that process, the agency floated the possibility of significant reductions in rope in the water and more closed areas. At the behest of Maine lawmakers, the agency held a meeting in Portland on this proposal, where it was roundly criticized.

Now, in a court filing last week, the Center for Biological Diversity said it could support a longer timeline – two years, rather than six months – for new rules. But, it wants new rules to be much stricter than what are currently in place.

“Plaintiffs are willing to agree to the longer timeline suggested by NMFS and Maine Department of Marine Resources — a final rule by December 9, 2024 — to ensure the agency finally promulgates the comprehensive measures the [Marine Mammal Protection Act] requires via a robust public process,” the Center for Biological Diversity said in an Oct. 21 court filing.

A federal judge has to agree to this timeline for it to take effect. He should.

As an addendum, the fact that the center so clearly said it is willing to agree with the Maine Department of Marine Resources shows the state’s close involvement in this case. Some politicians have argued that Maine needs to file its own, new case to protect the state’s lobstermen. This court filing shows that such a move is not needed. It demonstrates that the state, through its Department of Marine Resources, is already an integral – and, for now, effective – party in this lawsuit, swaying the thinking of the environmental group that filed the lawsuit in the first place.


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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...