Local lawmakers sounded off Aug. 31, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced tough new regulations for the lobster fishermen.

The federal agency rolled out its action plan which includes closing portions of the Gulf of Maine to fishing with the aim of protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales.

“This NOAA restriction is both arbitrary and unjustified, unsupported by any evidence,” said Rep. Jeffrey Evangelos, I-Friendship.

“Two years ago, at a hearing at Medomak Valley High School, I asked Dr. Colleen Coogan of NOAA how many lobster boats in Maine had hurt or killed any right whales? She answered, ‘It’s never happened.’ While we all feel for the whales, blaming an industry without evidence amounts to ‘collective punishment.’ And letting the real culprits off the hook, the big ships and Canada, the end result is the theater of the absurd. I’m contacting my federal delegation immediately. This ruling cannot stand. Shame on the Conservation Law Foundation. Their lawyers should know better than pressing a case against Maine based on zero evidence.”

Rep. Valli Geiger, D-Rockland, had this to say on the matter: “I think it is our responsibility to do what we can to allow such magnificent creatures to continue to exist. The Right Whale is considered critically endangered with less than whales left. However, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences has been studying the Right Whale for decades. They have said pretty definitively that the current plunge in numbers is due to a change in their migration habits due to climate change. They feed on Copeods, which have migrated north to colder waters, due to climate change. Whales have followed them and are now in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a busy shipping lane.

“It is this habitat shift that has led to multiple deaths due to ship strikes. Our job is to adjust our own understanding of their changing migratory pattern and clear the way for them. It was the scientists at Bigelow who have said that fishing entanglements are way down with the changes in fishing gear required over the years. Yet NOAA has announced rules that presume both are equal threats. They are not.”

U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Gov. Janet Mills issued this statement following the release of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Rule:

“The Maine lobster fishery has repeatedly made significant improvements to their practices and modifications to their gear to protect right whales, including the implementation of weak link mandates in 1997 and again in 2007. Notably, there has not been a single right whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster fisheries in nearly two decades,” said Maine’s Congressional Delegation and Gov. Mills.

“In recent years, the Delegation and the Mills Administration, including the Maine Department of Marine Resources, have worked closely with the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the Maine Lobstering Union, and other stakeholders to ensure that their input was received by [National Marine Fisheries Service] with the goal of regulations that are fair, safe, and reflect the reality in the Gulf of Maine. Unfortunately, the final rule does not meet those standards.

“We agree that we must protect the fragile right whale population, but we must do so without endangering human lives or livelihoods. It is unacceptable that Maine lobstermen and women continue to be the primary target of burdensome regulations despite the multiple effective mitigation measures they have taken and the data showing that ship strikes and Canadian snow crab gear pose substantially greater risks to right whales,” they continued.

“We will continue to work with our partners in the lobster industry to support this vital part of Maine’s economy and heritage.”

Sen. David Miramant, D-Knox, said that “NOAA missed the boat yesterday! Maine DMR along with legislators and the representatives of the lobster fishery have been making productive suggestions for over two years about this issue.

“A known right whale entanglement has not been attributed to our lobster fishery since the unusual mortality event was declared or even in the last decade. There have also been sparse sightings or survey data corroborating the recent presence of Right Whales in the Maine closure area, and the reduction of lines and addition of weak links that will be required would protect a rare passing whale from entanglement.

“We do know that ship strikes and the Canadian crab fishery have, and continue to be, a source of mortality and those need to be addressed. This proposed action looks like a way for NOAA to say they did something with no expectation of saving any Right Whales. What they have done is to hurt members of a fishery that has always had an eye toward conservation and which has been willing to make effective changes when there is a basis for success.

“This was in evidence when NOAA reached an agreement with the state last year about gear marking for easy identification. Our fishery has been making the changes to the lines which take time and money and now NOAA has changed it again and broken the agreement.

“The members of our lobster fishery are understandably upset and the champions of the Right Whales should be as well. We expect more from an agency charged with the protection of our remaining fisheries than unilateral, ineffective, knee-jerk regulations.” concluded Miramant.

The Maine Delegation said it has been “steadfastly opposed to undue burdens that would threaten the lobster fishery – an important economic driver for Maine – but which do not meaningfully protect whales.”

The Delegation urged both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump to act on their pledges to protect lobstermen’s livelihoods, citing the lack of data to support claims that the lobster fishery presents an extreme risk to whales compared to other marine activities such as ship strikes.

Last week, they wrote to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, urging her to oppose last-minute changes to this rule that would significantly harm the livelihoods of communities that depend on fishing and lobstering without meaningfully protecting whales.

According to regulators, the whale’s population decline began in 2010, “and accelerated most notably when 17 mortalities were documented in 2017, leading to the declaration of an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event. Since then, 34 right whales died and 16 were seriously injured, primarily due to entanglements and vessel strikes.”

The population is estimated at fewer than 370 whales.

The measures include closures with a 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January.

NOAA’s plan also calls for:

  • Reducing the number of buoy lines in the water
  • Weakening the remaining lines so that whales can break free
  • Marking fishing gear to identify the fishery when entanglements occur