Maine politicians applaud last-minute rider granting lobstermen regulatory reprieve
The U.S. state of Maine’s entire congressional delegation and the state’s governor applauded a late rider on the federal omnibus funding budget that will give lobstermen in the U.S. a six-year reprieve from economically restrictive rules related to preserving the remaining population of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
U.S. senators Angus King and Susan Collins, and U.S. representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden – along with Maine Governor Janet Mills – held a press conference on Wednesday, 21 December, to share the scope of the new rider. In addition to a six-year reprieve on stricter gear standards and harvest rules, the rider also allows for up to USD 50 million (EUR 47 million) in funding for research related to right whales and new gear for lobstermen.
The rider is a part of the federal omnibus funding budget that is expected to be approved before the end of 2022.
“Without this provision, it is no exaggeration to say that Maine’s lobster fishery could be facing a complete shutdown,” Mills said. “I strongly strongly urge Congress to pass the omnibus bill.”
According to the state’s congressional delegation, the new rider took intense work over the last month in a bipartisan effort to head off new rules.
“I think it should be understood what an achievement this is, to work out a position of this complexity in a short time,” King said.
Collins, who has represented Maine in the U.S. Congress for over 25 years, said she has “never seen” the Maine delegation and governor more united on any issue. She said NOAA's regulatory agenda related to right whale preservation oversteps its legal mandate.
“I’ve never seen a worse case of regulatory overreach to address a problem and blame an industry that is not at all responsible for a problem,” she said.
King concurred with Collins, and said representatives of Maine's lobster industry were integral in enabling a quick turnaround on the new provisions.
“I have never seen such close consultation and teamwork, not only among the members of the delegation, but with the governor, and also with [Maine's Department of] Marine Resources, with the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, with the folks who really know the facts on the water,” King said. “To give you an idea, I called Susan about one of the unsettled matters at 3:30 in the morning on Sunday. That was the nature of the work.”
The delegation was joined on the conference call by Maine lobsterman Curt Brown, who said the new legislation is important to the future of his industry.
“This is a great day for [the] Maine lobster [industry]. The future looks much brighter today than it has for a long long time,” he said.
Brown said right whale protection and lobstering aren’t mutually exclusive, and said the industry has already made strides to protect the species.
“One thing everyone on this call can agree on is that it’s important to protect right whales. I would argue there isn’t a group in this country that has done more to protect right whales than lobstermen and women,” he said. “We’re proud of the measures we’ve taken, and we’re proud of their effectiveness.”
The fishery has implemented a number of measures with whales in mind, Mills said, including removing 30,000 miles of vertical lines from the water, modifying gear, and complying with additional regulations.
“They’ve done this even when there’s never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear, ever,” she said.
Environmental groups were less enthusiastic about the last-minute rider addition. Oceana Campaign Director Gib Brogan said the move will push the right whale closer to extinction.
“Today is a dreadful day for the North Atlantic right whale. The Maine congressional delegation’s irresponsible 11th-hour amendment, which is included in a massive bill to fund the federal government, ensures that critically endangered North Atlantic right whales will not get necessary protections from deadly fishing gear entanglements until at least 2028,” Brogan said. “With an annually declining population now sitting at just around 340 whales, that is too late for the survival of the species.”
Part of the new spending package attached to the rider will determine exactly what impact the lobster industry is having on right whales, if any. King asaid the whales face a wide array of other threats – none of which have received the same regulatory pressure as lobstering.
“I would also mention that a great deal of the danger to the whales comes from ship strikes,” King said. “Why don’t they close Boston harbor to all ships? That seems ridiculous, but so is the closure of the lobster fishery.”
King said a lack of data has been one of the more-frustrating parts of the debate over protecting right whales, and the new funding will help fill that gap.
“We may not need to do radical modification if the whales aren’t in the Gulf of Maine,” King said.
Collins said she plans to continue working to secure funding for further research to ensure that after the six-year reprieve is over, the lobster industry and right whales can coexist without issue.
“As someone who will surely be the vice-chair of the Senate appropriations committee, I want to make sure additional appropriations are targeted, going to the lobstermen and -women who can test the gear, going to the University of Maine, for example, going to the [Maine] Department of Marine Resources, going to the Maine Lobstermen Association and the Maine Lobstering Union, going to those groups,” she said. “The future amounts remain to be determined, but we need to make sure that the funding goes to entities that will really hep us solve this problem.”
Image by Chris Chase/SeafoodSource