WASHINGTON — Maine’s legislative delegation in Washington is urging federal officials to ensure that the forthcoming North Atlantic right whale regulations don’t include any last-minute changes that would hurt the livelihood of Maine’s fishing communities without providing any meaningful protections for the whales.
“We are now asking for your assistance to avoid hasty, late-breaking changes by (National Marine Fisheries Service) to measures that have been extensively negotiated and carefully designed in consultation with Maine’s Department of Marine Resources and broad outreach to stakeholders,” legislators Susan Collins, Angus King, Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. “These changes, as indicated by the Final Environmental Impact Statement, add significant costs to the industry without corresponding gains in conservation and seriously undermine conservation partnerships at state and local levels.”
With finalization of rules on the lobster and other trap fisheries in response to declining right whale populations expected imminently, the delegation outlined three areas of concern.
The proposed rule includes a requirement for Maine fishing gear to have a green marker if a specific piece of gear was set inside or outside a certain boundary. This would help determine the origin of gear should it become entangled with a whale.
In anticipation of the rule, the state implemented that measure last fall, but a new preferred alternative has emerged that would require different markers based on a different boundary line, meaning that lobstermen who fish in both areas would need to have two sets of different gear. That could get expensive for lobstermen and the delegation urged officials to include the requirements that were part of the proposed rule.
The proposal for the seasonal restricted areas off Maine was also troubling for the lawmakers and the delegation felt it didn’t have a strong basis in science.
“An absolute closed area would be very costly, if not prohibitive, to the business models of numerous fishermen and, in many respects, would seemingly not provide much additional risk reduction,” the delegation wrote. “We strongly believe that fishermen should not lose access to fishing grounds unless whales are present.”
The legislators also urged federal officials to revisit a potential trigger option or only use certain hotspots in the restricted area.
The last concern was the “rigid one-size-fits-all approach.” The delegation felt that lobstermen needed the ability to have slight variations in their gear depending on the size of their vessel. Collins, King, Pingree and Golden encouraged the feds to adopt state proposals to respond to fishermen’s safety concerns and changes in right whale’s distribution.
There are now fewer than 360 right whales left in the world. Officials have said that entanglements are a major cause of the downturn of the species. Local lobstermen have argued that they are not the ones behind the whale’s demise and feel they are being unnecessarily burdened with rules that won’t help the endangered marine mammal rebound.