Maine lawmakers snap over lobstermen’s impact on whales

Maine lawmakers snap over lobstermen’s impact on whales

As federal regulators look to impose limits on fishing lines that can entangle an endangered whale species, a bipartisan group of Maine lawmakers is rallying to block rules they say could tank the state’s lucrative lobster industry.

And as part of the effort, they’re threatening to take federal funding away from one of the country’s most prestigious marine research centers after it urged consumers last month to stop eating lobster until better protections for the North Atlantic right whales are in place. 

“North Atlantic right whales have been entangled numerous times in U.S. lobster gear over the last decade, and in the last three weeks we’ve seen a North Atlantic right whale known as Snow Cone, with gear not yet linked to a specific fishery, and reports of a humpback whale that was entangled in Maine lobster gear,” said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, vice president of global ocean conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

The aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which makes recommendations for maintaining sustainable fisheries, issued an advisory in early September urging consumers to stop eating American lobster, placing the U.S. and Canadian catch on its “red list” of seafood to avoid — the worst category of listing behind green (best choice) and yellow (a good alternative). Some restaurants and retailers, including the popular meals delivery service HelloFresh, stopped offering lobster after the advisory was posted.

The red listing added fuel to the lobster industry’s already tense fight with environmentalists who want NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, to strengthen federal protections for the right whales, whose population is now estimated by the agency to be below 350. 

A right whale surfacing off the coast of Argentina. Their population has fallen to about 350, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images)

In response to the red listing and the push for regulations, the Maine congressional delegation — Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King, Republican Rep. Jared Golden and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree — have united with Democratic Gov. Janet Mills in attacking the aquarium and a high-pressure campaign against the Biden administration as it begins the process of revising fishery regulations.

King and Golden introduced legislation last week that would block federal funding for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, challenging its scientific integrity. King said the institution has received nearly $197 million in federal funds since 2001.

“The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s ‘Red Listing’ of Maine lobster is a baseless attack on a proud, sustainable fishery and a clear attempt to put thousands of Maine people out of work,” King said in a statement. “By refusing to provide any evidence supporting their harmful decision and ignoring facts that undercut their conclusion, the aquarium has made it clear that they are not a serious scientific organization, and certainly not one that deserves taxpayer funding.”

But King’s bill — which he dubbed the Red Listing Monterey Bay Aquarium Act — would mostly be a blow to the aquarium’s reputation. 

Dianto Kemmerly said the aquarium has actually received less than $20 million in federal funding since it opened 38 years ago, and it had revenues of over $110 million in 2021, almost half of which came from donations.

“This reaction distracts from the real issue: the urgent need for the federal and state agencies to get these fisheries back into compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act so these fisheries can co-exist with the whales,” she said. “Our role is raising awareness of the issue. We don’t believe anyone wants to see this species go extinct due to their seafood choices.”

Friends on the Hill

The aquarium does have some friends in Congress, including Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who introduced bills earlier this year to authorize $15 million over the next 10 years for grant programs to support research on the human impact on the whale species, with a focus on fishing gear. Both bills have yet to be considered in committee.

According to NOAA Fisheries, right whales have been experiencing an “Unusual Mortality Event” since 2017, with 10 percent of its population — about 30 whales — falling victim to fishing gear entanglement and ship strikes within the past five years.

Environmentalists blame the lobstermen’s use of pots, traps or gillnets, especially those that use vertical lines, for the whale’s threatened status, citing research that estimates 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once.

NOAA Fisheries began a crackdown on lobster lines with a 2021 rule, which immediately received backlash from lobstermen and the Maine delegation for setting too short of a time span to obtain necessary gear, such as lines that break when struck by a whale. The lawmakers wrote NOAA in February, saying that if the rules weren’t postponed, it would cost the lobster industry over $7 million.

But lobstermen lost a key lawsuit in July as the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia handed down a ruling directing NOAA to propose even stricter gear rules than ones the agency floated in 2021.

NOAA then proposed amending the rules with a notice of intent to start a new rulemaking process on Sept. 9, adding the new plan would aim for a 90 percent reduction in risk for the whales. 

The four Maine lawmakers railed against the rule changes at an Oct. 5 NOAA meeting in Portland, arguing the agency hasn’t reported a right whale death due to Maine lobstermen line entanglement since 2004. Pingree added that in the past decade, research has shown that the right whales have left Maine waters due to climate change, which led to “an uptick in deaths from ships strikes and entanglements in Canadian waters.”

“Nevertheless, the Maine lobster industry has been forced to make dramatic changes and shoulder the cost of reducing right whale deaths — regardless of whether the right whale deaths can be linked to lobstering in the Gulf of Maine,” she said. “If lobstermen and women are forced to comply with new regulations that make it impossible to continue fishing, then many coastal businesses will also be impacted, and many won’t survive.”

Monterey Bay’s Dianto Kemmerly countered that although entanglements are hard to track, they’re still happening. Most whales that die from entanglement in fishing gear are not found, she said, and even if gear is recovered, “nine-out-of-ten times it can’t be linked back to a specific fishery.”

The Maine delegation has no intention of letting up. Most recently, the lawmakers wrote to NOAA urging the agency to hold at least one more meeting in Downeast Maine, which is the coastal region east of Bangor, after the Oct. 5 meeting in Portland, on the state’s southwestern coast, was so highly attended.

“It is unacceptable that your agency is only holding one in-person meeting hours away from some of our state’s largest lobster ports, forcing lobstermen to spend time off the water, which is their primary if not only source of income,” they wrote in the letter. 

The comment period for NOAA’s right whale rulemaking notice closed Tuesday after garnering over 4,000 comments. The agency has yet to announce next steps on the rule.

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