STONINGTON — It was almost 45 years ago when a fictional news anchor named Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch in the film “Network,” shouted out to listeners “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this anymore!”
Last week, Stonington lobsterman Julie Eaton, speaking for most members of her industry said just about the same thing in a posting on Facebook announcing plans for a rally on the Stonington Fish Pier at noon this Sunday to protest a proposed NOAA Fisheries rule that would force Maine lobstermen to remove half their buoy lines from the Gulf of Maine to reduce the risk that endangered right whales might become entangled in the fishing gear.
“It is official,” Eaton wrote. “We are holding a Lobstermen’s Rally … on the Stonington Commercial Fish Pier.”
Last March, NOAA Fisheries announced that the risk of harming right whales in the Gulf of Maine had to be reduced by 60 percent. Not long afterwards, the regulators adopted a “consensus” recommendation by a stakeholder group including representatives from the Department of Marine Resources, other state and federal fisheries regulators and several conservation organizations — the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team — that to reach the risk reduction target, Maine lobstermen would have to reduce the number of vertical buoy lines in the Gulf of Maine by 50 percent even though evidence showed that Maine fishing gear was not the primary cause of most of the right whale deaths over the past several years and that the vast majority of recent whale mortalities had occurred in Canadian waters.
According to Eaton, Sunday’s gathering is emphatically not a protest of the whale rule proposal but is intended “to inform the public that we are not killing whales in Maine, voice our concerns about the proposed whale regulations and how they will not only affect our own futures and safety but the future of our children and our coastal communities.”
The rally is likely to draw a big crowd and has already attracted at least one national political figure. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) has announced plans to attend.
Golden’s interest comes as no surprise. Last month, the congressman filed an amendment to a bill with the aim of blocking NOAA Fisheries from using a questionable method of data analysis as a basis for its proposed whale protection rules until it was subjected to peer review. The bill failed in the House of Representatives, but his actions seemed to stir the rest of the state’s Congressional delegation.
On July 10, Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine), U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Golden wrote to President Donald Trump, urging him to intervene in the conflict over the proposed rules, characterizing them as precisely the kind of “ill-conceived or overly burdensome” regulations he and his administration have targeted for review.
According to the delegation’s letter, and the data fisheries regulators relied on in crafting their regulatory proposals, while there can be no doubt that the shrinking population of right whales —currently about 425 animals — faces serious threat, entanglement with Maine lobster fishing gear does not seem to be among them.
As of last week, according to the delegation’s letter there have been six right whales, all of them in Canadian waters, of which three were attributed to ship strikes rather than entanglements with fishing gear. Of the three non-lethal entanglements this year, all occurred in Canadian waters and none took place in the Gulf of Maine.
Last Thursday, Gov. Janet Mills stepped up the state’s response to what she described as NOAA’s “foolish, unsupported and ill-advised regulations.”
In an open letter to the Maine lobster industry, Mills announced that she had directed DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher to establish a risk reduction target for the Maine lobster industry “commensurate with any actual risk” the industry poses rather than the 60 percent target set by NOAA Fisheries. Keliher will meet with lobstermen across the state next month as planned to announce the department’s findings and a plan that reflects the actual risk from the Maine lobster fishery.
“My administration will not allow any bureaucrat to undermine our lobster industry or our economy with foolish, unsupported and ill-advised regulations,” the governor wrote, adding, “I will do everything I can as your Governor to protect your rights and your livelihoods and defend Maine’s lobster industry in the face of absurd federal overreach.”
Mills’ letter drew an enthusiastic response from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
In a statement, Patrice McCarron, executive director of Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said “The Maine lobster industry understands that right whales are at risk and we want to be part of the solution. Maine’s solution must be right-sized to reflect the risk our fishery poses to right whales.”