WASHINGTON, D.C. — Congress approved Friday, Dec. 23 a regulatory pause for the lobster industry in an appropriations bill. The inclusion of the pause had been announced earlier in the week by Maine’s Congressional delegation.

Specifically, the provision in the bill:

-Deems the current right whale rules sufficient to ensure the continued operation of the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries for six years (through Dec. 31, 2028).

-Provide that new regulations for the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries would take effect in six years (by Dec. 31, 2028).

-Authorizes a new grant program that could fund innovative gear technologies and the monitoring necessary to support the dynamic management of fisheries. Fishermen and other participants within the maritime industry would be eligible for this funding.

The news was included in a news release issued Tuesday, Dec. 20 by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden and Governor Janet Mills.

The move is being met with criticism from environmental groups who have gone to court to force the federal government to toughen regulations to protect the right whale.

“If this rider goes through, there will be blood on the hands of Maine politicians,” Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation said in a statement on the CLF website. “With the rate we’ve been killing right whales, extinction is expected to occur between the next 20 to 40 years. In the absence of the new rule, we’ve got more years of unsustainable killing going on.”

Lobster landings in Knox County alone in 2021 amounted to $202 million.

“Maine’s lobstermen and women have long demonstrated their commitment to maintaining and protecting a sustainable fishery in the Gulf of Maine. 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,” said the Maine Delegation and Governor Mills in the news release.  “Despite our industry’s good stewardship and compliance with NMFS’ most recent regulations to protect right whales, our lobstermen and women are now faced with further punitive regulations that will not meaningfully protect the right whale, but will threaten the livelihoods of thousands of Maine families and small businesses.”

“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 continued.  “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.”

Although there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear, misguided environmental groups have been seeking actions that would end lobstering in Maine, all based on the theoretical possibility that a right whale could be killed, the news release stated.

“The provision is a simple compromise that would protect the livelihoods of the men and women who make their living from one of the best managed and sustainable fisheries on earth, according to the news release.

The Maine Delegation and Governor Mills noted in the news release they have been steadfastly opposed to undue burdens that would threaten the lobster fishery without meaningfully protecting whales.  Following the release of the final rule in late August 2021, the Maine Delegation and Governor Mills issued a statement in opposition to the rule and highlighting the Maine lobster fishery’s record of repeatedly making significant improvements to their practices and modifications to their gear to protect right whales.  In October 2021, they wrote to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to urge her to rescind the rule, and in February 2022 called for a postponement of the rule due to difficulties lobstermen were having obtaining the necessary gear.

The news was criticized immediately by one environmental group in addition to the Conservation Law Foundation.

The legal war began in January 2018 when the Center for Biological Diversity, the Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Conservation Law Foundation filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of D.C. against the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The environmental and animal rights groups claimed the federal agencies had not done enough to protect the North Atlantic right whale from lobster harvesting.

The organizations based their lawsuits on federal laws including the Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted by Congress and signed into law in October 1972 by President Richard Nixon in partial response to growing concerns among scientists and the general public that certain species and populations of marine mammals were in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of human activities. The MMPA set forth a national policy to prevent marine mammal species and population stocks from diminishing, as a result of human activities, beyond the point at which they cease to be significant functioning elements of the ecosystems of which they are a part, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Maine’s two U.S. senators — Democrat Edmund Muskie and Republican Margaret Chase Smith — voted for the legislation which has been amended several times since its initial enactment 50 years ago.

“At a time when most global leaders have agreed to protect 30 percent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030, manage the remaining 70 percent of the planet to avoid losing key habitats needed to support biodiversity, and ensure that industry discloses biodiversity risks and impacts, Congress is going in completely the opposite direction and potentially consigning both of these iconic species to extinction,” said Josh Osher, Public Policy Director at Western Watersheds Project in a news release on Dec. 20.

The organization was referring to the right whale and the western sage grouse which also was affected by inclusions in the appropriations bill.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 20.

“The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) is encouraged that Congress recognizes that the federal rulemaking process intended to protect right whales is broken. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has shunned its statutory obligations and based its current, unlawful plan to protect right whales on a “worst case scenario” that has already harmed, and could eventually eliminate, Maine’s multi-generational lobstering heritage while doing nothing to reduce the unacceptably high number of right whale deaths occurring in Canadian waters and from vessel strikes,” the the Association’s executive director stated.

“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. 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 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. The right whale has persisted for decades since it was almost driven to extinction by commercial whaling and it will continue to do so while a new, lawful plan is developed that appropriately addresses the actual risks to the species.”

“This legislation also secures millions of dollars of funding for much-needed scientific research that will better inform that future plan and help to ensure that this process is driven by good science rather than the political interests of national advocacy groups.”

“MLA is incredibly grateful for the extraordinary efforts of the Maine delegation and Governor Mills who worked to ensure that the most sustainable fishery in the world can continue to operate and to provide time for the development of a new, lawful plan,” the MLA executive director concluded.