US lobster fishery could get longer reprieve from right whale rules

U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer.

A rider on the U.S. Senate’s omnibus funding budget could grant U.S. lobster fishermen a six-year reprieve on new stricter gear standards and harvest rules if the budget is passed in what's left of 2022.

The new rider, inserted onto the budget by U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and U.S. Senator and Appropriations Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), would deem the latest final rule issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) “sufficient” to meet the standards of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The rider to the budget – which is expected to pass the U.S. Senate and House – deems the current rules sufficient through 31 December, 2028, provides that new regulations for the fisheries would take effect in six years, and authorizes a new grant program to “promote the innovation and adoption of gear technologies in the fisheries.”

The new rider was authored and advocated for by the congressional delegation of the U.S. state of Maine: U.S. senators Susan Collins and Angus King, and U.S. representatives Chellie Pingree, and Jared Golden. Maine Governor Janet Mills also advocated for the rider, according to a press release.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg first ruled in 2020 that NMFS’s regulations on the lobster fishery didn’t meet MMPA standards. The NMFS then introduced its new rules – which Boasberg again found to be inadequate.  

Those rulings put the fate of the fishery – which achieved a record value of USD 724.9 million (EUR 682 million) in 2021 in the U.S. state of Maine alone – in question, with lobstermen fighting the new rules in court and urging consumers to support the sector. The ruling also led to Maine lobster having its Marine Stewardship Council certification suspended for a second time, a red-listing in the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program, and to Whole Foods curtailing its sales of Maine lobster products.

The new provision is a means of assisting the state’s iconic lobster fishery, Maine’s congressional delegation and Mills said.

“We have always said that we will pursue any and all policy solutions to protect our hardworking lobstermen and women along Maine’s coast,” they said. “Our provision, which relies upon the expertise of the professionals at the Maine Department of Marine Resources, was included in the government funding bill released this morning. It will enable our lobster fishery to continue to operate while still complying with NMFS’ most recent right whale rule. Without our provision, Maine’s iconic industry could be facing a complete shutdown – and the ripple effects across our state would have been widespread.”

The Maine Lobstermen's Association welcomed the news of a reprieve. Maine Lobstermen's Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron said it showed Congress "recognizes that the federal rulemaking process intended to protect right whales is broken."

"Congress is providing time to allow the lobster fishery to continue to operate while a new, lawful plan – based on realistic assumptions and the best scientific and commercial information– is developed without decimating this critical industry and the coastal and island communities that depend upon it," McCarron said. 

The new rider on the bill was sharply condemned by the Center for Biological Diversity, the organization that launched the lawsuit that resulted in Boasberg’s rulings. The organization said the new rider will put the right whale on an “irreversible extinction trajectory.”

“Schumer and Leahy are extinction Democrats who just heartlessly put special interests above our nation’s beautiful natural heritage,” Center for Biological Diversity Government Affairs Director Brett Hartl said in a release. “Right whales have migrated along New York’s coastline for thousands of years, but Sen. Schumer’s action will make this generation the last to witness these remarkable creatures. What a horrific legacy to leave to one’s grandchildren.”

Maine’s congressional delegation and Mills, meanwhile, continue to reiterate that no North Atlantic right whale deaths have ever been directly attributed to lobster gear.

“Maine’s lobstermen and women have long demonstrated their commitment to maintaining and protecting a sustainable fishery in the Gulf of Maine,” the delegation and Mills said. “They have invested in countless precautionary measures to protect right whales, including removing more than 30,000 miles of line from the water and switching to weaker rope to prevent whales from being entangled. And the fact is – there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear.”

McCarron also countered that the claims the lobster fishery could lead to the right whale's extinction are contrary to science. 

"The rhetoric from national advocacy organizations claiming that this important legislation will lead to the 'extinction' of the right whale is contrary to undisputed science, false, and meant to serve only their fringe interests," McCarron said. "The Maine lobster fishery is not driving the right whale population decline, and the species cannot be saved by unlawfully overregulating a fishery that, according to federal data, has never been linked with a right whale death."

The Marine Stewardship Council said despite the need to suspend the lobster fishery's MSC certification due to lack of legal compliance, independent assessments also found little evidence the fishery is harming right whales. An expedited audit by MRAG Americas in September 2022 found only legal issues and no environmental ones.

“In the most-recent assessment by the assessor, no evidence was found that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales,” the MSC said. 

Photo courtesy of Ron Adar/Shutterstock


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