NOAA delaying enforcement of lobstering rules intended to protect right whales

Published on
April 21, 2022
Four right whales swimming

NOAA has announced it will delay the enforcement of new gear modification rules in the U.S. Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fisheries.

The rules, designed to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, call for new gear types with weak rope links, intended to protect right whales from entanglement-related issues potentially caused by vertical lines. The necessary modifications, announced in August 2021, will still be required as of 1 May, 2022, but enforcement of the rules will be delayed.

Lobstermen in the fishery had been requesting a delay as supply chain challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic were making it difficult for fishermen to obtain the gear necessary to comply with the new rules. Maine Governor Janet Mills and Maine’s entire congressional delegation sent a letter on 29 March to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo asking her to delay implementation of the requirements.

NOAA Regional Administrator Michael Pentony said NOAA is “closely monitoring” the situation as fishermen move to comply with the new gear requirements.

“I want to assure fishermen who are making good-faith efforts to comply with these new measures but are not able to procure compliant gear that we understand the difficulty of their situation,” Pentony said in a NOAA announcement. “We are working closely with our state and federal enforcement partners to implement a graduated enforcement effort that will focus on compliance assistance rather than civil penalties until we have determined that localized supply chain issues have been sufficiently resolved.”

Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) Executive Director Patrice McCarron said the move is welcome, but that the challenges of the regulations are greater than just a lack of access to gear.

“The new rules are very confusing to fishermen, which is why MLA has widely distributed a comprehensive outreach guide to help them better understand what they need to do,” McCarron said.  “Some have complied and had products recalled, others have complied and had devices fail, and many more have not been able to secure the materials they need. Lobstermen are still frustrated that NOAA is not allowing the use of knots determined by the state of Maine to meet the requirements of the rule and could be readily implemented with existing gear.”

Mills and Maine’s congressional delegation recently issued a joint statement, calling on NOAA to delay the implementation of the rules.

“As we stated in our letter to Commerce Secretary Raimondo last month, supply chain disruptions are making it impossible for Maine lobstermen and women to purchase the new gear that NOAA is requiring,” the joint statement said. “NOAA’s announcement today is an acknowledgement of this reality, but falls short of honoring our reasonable request and the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy’s recommendation to delay the implementation date.”

The delegation promised to “continue pushing” on the issues, and said “a better and fairer solution would be for NOAA to delay the deadline to 1 July, as we have repeatedly called for.” 

In the meantime, the MLA is continuing its lawsuit against the federal government’s new rules to protect right whales.

“The fact remains that the 10-year whale plan is based on flawed science and will not help protect the right whale,” McCarron said. “That is why we are suing to force the government to come up with a valid plan that will protect the whales and the future of Maine’s lobster fishery.”

The MLA is also asking Maine lobster fishermen to fill out a survey on the new rules, so that it can accumulate data on any issues encountered by those impacted by the rules.

“If you are having problems, we need to know. If they are working well, we need to know. If you have success, we’d like to let others know,” the MLA said. “If there are unresolved issues with weak inserts that we need government officials and politicians to understand, we must have data.”  

Photo courtesy of NOAA

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