Maine Officials Go On Defense Regarding Whale Rules

Governor Janet Mills speaks in support of lobstermen at a July 21 rally in Stonington. Photo courtesy of Knox Village Soup.

During July Governor Janet Mills and the Maine Congressional delegation expressed strong opposition to the mandate from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) requiring additional right whale protections. In April, states with commercial lobster fisheries were directed by NMFS to reduce the risk posed by the fishery to right whales by between 60% and 80%. As a result, Maine lobstermen must remove 50% of all vertical lines from the water to achieve the 60% reduction in risk.

But, as Governor Mills stated in a letter to commercial lobstermen released on July 11, “…it is clear to me — as it is to you — that the federal government’s pending regulations are unfair, unreasonable, and unwarranted. I will not stand idly by as Washington attempts to threaten your livelihoods and our way of life.” Mills cited the lack of data linking the gear used by Maine lobstermen to any recent right whale entanglements and deaths. Shortly after Mills sent her letter to lobstermen, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirmed that eight right whales have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer. Three more were seen to be entangled in fishing gear in that region in July.

Mills explained that she had “directed Commissioner Keliher to evaluate a risk reduction target for Maine that is commensurate to any actual risk posed by the Maine lobster industry – not the 60 percent risk reduction target assigned by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Commissioner will come back to the industry in August, as promised, to share the Department’s findings and put forward a plan to reduce risk in Maine.”

In response, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) commended Mills’ action. “The Maine lobster industry understands that right whales are at risk and we want to be part of the solution. But as the Governor rightly points out, the data show that Maine is just a small part of a large and complex problem,” wrote MLA executive director Patrice McCarron. “Maine’s solution must be right-sized to reflect the risk our fishery poses to right whales. We will not implement changes to our fishery to achieve an arbitrary goal if those measures won’t actually benefit the right whale.”

On July 21, lobstermen turned out in force at a rally in Stonington to protest NMFS’ actions. Governor Mills, Senator Susan Collins, Representative Chellie Pingree and Representative Jared Golden were in attendance. Rep. Golden said to lobstermen, “The new NOAA regulations could put many Maine lobstermen out of business without a guarantee that any right whales would be saved. It is important to Maine communities and the lobster industry that we continue to fight against unfair rules and inaccurate information. We’re calling for solutions based on sound science and good data that protect lobstermen and whales.”

Senator Collins said, “In the past three years there has not been one entanglement [of a right whale] off Maine. NOAA needs to concentrate on where the whales really are. Now is the time for NOAA to listen to you.”

In May, Maine’s Congressional delegatation wrote to acting NOAA director Neil Jacobs, asking him to ensure that decisions regarding right whales were based on sound science, that risk reduction standards were comparable in both the U.S. and Canada, and that the lobster industry be consulted throughout the decision-making process. In July, the delegation wrote to President Trump, pointing out that the forthcoming regulations are “a matter of serious economic importance to the state of Maine” and that they will force “significant economic hardship” on the lobster industry without concrete evidence they will benefit the whales. On July 16, Maine’ former Governor Paul LePage voiced his concern over the pending whale regulations in a letter to the President. He wrote, “Although well-intended, there is no evidence to support that the proposed restrictions on lobstering in Maine waters will save even one whale. This is unfortunately another federal overreach in response to big money environmentalists. It will hurt one of the last great fisheries in America: Maine lobster. I am not saying the loss of right whales is not a problem it is; but penalizing Maine fishermen won’t save these whales.”

Representative Pingree told lobstermen at the rally what many of them were likely thinking, “There’s a right way to do this and a wrong way. These regulations aren’t the way.”