News Feature

Washington, D.C.
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, December 22, 2022
Legislation will pause lobster regulation six years, fund more research

U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, Representatives Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden and Governor Janet Mills announced December 20 that they were successful in securing a regulatory pause and research funding for Maine’s lobster industry in the omnibus appropriations bill that is expected to pass the Senate and House, according to a press release.

Specifically, the provision in the omnibus legislation:

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

Provides that new regulations for the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries would take effect in six years, by December 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 problem

“My state is facing its most serious crisis, in my view, in my 18 years of public service on behalf of Maine,” said King from the Senate floor December 20, according to a release. “What does that mean? What is the fishery? What is the lobster industry? The lobster industry is this guy right here—thousands of small, independent businesses. These boats aren’t owned by Amazon or Walmart or Whole Foods. They’re owned by individual people, families, generations in a town like this. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the livelihoods of thousands of Maine people that will be cut off by virtue of this decision within two years.

“Is it a real threat? People are already canceling orders for boats. The business of the people that make lobster traps is down 25% or 30%. People are starting to put their boat on the market because they see this closure coming of an industry that’s been a mainstay of the Maine economy for 150 years,” explained King. “Well over a billion and a half dollars a year is based upon this unique, iconic product that comes from the cold waters of Maine.”

“This decision of the court that effectively closes our lobster industry down is based upon the idea of protecting the North Atlantic right whale—which needs protection, it is indeed an endangered species. The question is whether the remedy, in this case the closure of the Maine fishery, will actually help in the preservation of the right whale,” continued King.

“I want to start with a couple of data points. Here’s the first. This is the number of right whale deaths ever attributed to Maine lobster gear: zero. Here’s another data point. The number of right whales even being entangled in Maine lobster gear in almost the last 20 years: zero,” King exclaimed. “So the question is, is there sufficient evidence for this draconian remedy, the shutdown of the entire industry?

“The other data point is that according to the maps of whale sightings based upon data from the Department of Commerce and NOAA, the whales are moving away from Maine.

“So we’re talking about an economic death sentence for an entire way of life, for the town of Stonington, for the thousands and I mean between 5,000 and 10,000 people who work on the water and thousands more that work in processing and involved in this industry, over a billion and a half dollars a year of economic impact in the state of Maine.”

The background

“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,” according to the Maine Delegation and Mills. “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,” the release 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. 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 release states.

King emphasizes that this is not a choice between conservation and the lobster industry, and that the bill will protect both in a sensible way.

“We don’t have to choose between lobsters and whales. We don’t have to choose between the men and women of Stonington or Cutler or Corea or Georgetown or Freeport or Cape Elizabeth and whales. We just have to be sensible about approaching this in a way that will protect the whales but also protect the way of life of these wonderful people.”

The solution

From the floor of the Senate, King said, “Now, a solution to this crisis is in the bill that we’ll be voting on (September 21). It’s one that the Maine Delegation, myself and Senator Collins, Congresswoman Pingree, Congressman Golden have been working on since this decision. What it is, is a compromise that’s been negotiated between the various people interested in this issue in this body.

“Importantly, it provides funding for two purposes. One is the development of gear that will reduce the risk even further,” explained King. “The other funding is for data to know where the whales are. To know because the problem is, would data we have indicates there are practically none along the Maine coast. But we don’t know that for sure.

“The third thing it does is pause the economic death sentence. It pauses the ruling that says this has to be finished in two years because that means the industry, the lobster fishing, the lobster families, the lobster towns are finished within two years. We’re talking about a six-year pause as time to collect the data and develop the gear,” King said. “So what we’re doing, what we compromise was a six-year period that will give us time to develop the technology and to develop the data and we may find that there are different solutions or that the data may show no additional restrictions beyond what is already being done are necessary.”