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Nick Battista is the chief policy officer at the Island Institute. He has worked fishermen and community leaders to further the sustainability of Maine’s coastal and island communities for the last 15 years. He is also chair of the ConnectMaine Authority board.
Just before the holidays, Maine’s congressional delegation took bold legislative action that has the potential to save Maine’s lobster industry and the island and coastal communities that depend on it. While this news provides hope for fishermen, it is also an urgent call to action. We all need to work together to take advantage of this moment.
New legislation approved through the federal budget process extended a deadline to the end of 2028 for implementing contentious changes proposed to protect North Atlantic right whales. In addition, the new legislation invests more than $55 million in science, monitoring and technology aimed at improving how we understand and manage these ocean resources.
One major problem with the proposed protections was that they didn’t adequately account for climate change. A December 2022 report from the National Marine Fisheries Service shows right whales have new migration patterns, venturing far past their traditional territories and journeying to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Whales are going there because changes in ocean circulation and warming waters off Maine force them to look elsewhere for their food. That’s why the new investments in science and data collection are so important. We need a more accurate picture of where the whales are to properly plan for their protection and the co-existence of the lobster fishery.
The new legislation also funds testing and deployment of innovative gear technologies — including ropeless traps — that can reduce the risk to whales. Accelerating our understanding of ropeless gear, including the technical, operational, enforcement, regulatory and other challenges helps us better evaluate this technology’s ability to meet the needs of lobstermen.
Even with better data, it is likely the lobster industry and coastal communities will still face significant changes over the next six years. As Maine Department of Marine Resources, Commissioner Patrick Keliher recently told the lobster industry, “This win doesn’t mean we can sit back and wait for things to change – we must actively work on gathering data, challenging the science, improving the models and developing gear that works … we must all work together and determine the path forward.”
It’s not just the lobstermen who are called to act, we all have a critical role to play. Here are some practical steps we can take to strengthen our coastal communities:
Continue to invest in aquaculture to expand and diversify Maine’s marine economy. Accepting aquaculture as an important working waterfront business can continue to help fishermen add new components to their business.
Invest in our most important coastal assets, our working waterfronts. Making it easier for landowners to permanently conserve their waterfronts, just like we do with other working lands, helps secure access to the ocean for businesses today and in the future.
Accelerate investment in high-speed, reliable internet. Maine’s rural fishing communities need strong digital infrastructure that can enable a variety of other investments, including expanded educational, health care and economic opportunities to help them compete in the global economy. Fortunately, the Maine Connectivity Authority is working to ensure all Mainers can afford the internet, have the devices to connect, and know how to make the most of high-speed connectivity.
Invest in our schools and social services to support whole communities affected by changes to the lobster industry. In many towns, the school helps support families and brings the community together. From school counselors to mental health professionals, our communities and our schools are going to need a lot of support in navigating an uncertain future.
The next six years present an unparalleled opportunity to strengthen Maine’s island and coastal communities’ ability to withstand future changes. Thank you to U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden for giving us this opportunity. At the Island Institute, we are working with partner organizations and community leaders to make these and other investments. I encourage you to join us, roll up your sleeves and invest in your community.