Anyone with illusions about the simplicity of Maine’s lobster fishing industry should check out some of the recent headlines about the issues roiling both the market for lobster and the regulatory environment affecting the men and women who fish for them. Fishermen seem to be perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop, but last week at least, there was some good news.
On Friday, United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and European Union Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan announced a package of tariff reductions that included the elimination of EU tariffs on U.S. lobster. U.S. exports of live and frozen lobster products to the EU were over $111 million in 2017.
Earlier last week, a federal district court judge gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) nine more months to write new rules to protect endangered right whales from getting tangled up in lobster fishing gear. In April, the same judge ruled that in 2014 NMFS violated the federal Endangered Species Act when it adopted new rules governing the lobster fishery without adequately considering the risk to whales.
With the gift of more time to participate in the rule-making process, the lobster industry will need to make the most of it. Already several draft plans have been presented and rejected. Painful concessions are inevitable.
Time is of the essence for the whales, too. Only an estimated 400 North Atlantic right whales remain. Whether they are regularly present in the waters fished by Maine lobstermen or likely to be tangled in existing lobster gear is a matter of hot debate. Regardless, lobstermen are going to have to do more to protect them.
Fishermen will also get more time to comply with other federal rules. During a visit to Maine last week, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that lobstermen will have until 2024 to meet the diesel engine emissions standards written into the national marine diesel program in 2008. All new big lobster boats were supposed to use the cleanest engines by 2017. Problem is, those engines haven’t hit the marine market yet.
Manufacturers now have more time to bring low-emission engines that will meet the performance needs of lobstermen to market and boat builders will have some time to design around them.
In both the case of whale protections and clean engines, technology that could help the industry further protect the environment is either a ways off or does not exist yet. Fishermen can’t power a boat with an engine they can’t buy. Nor can they fish ropeless. Reducing the number of vertical lines connecting traps on the ocean floor to buoys on the ocean’s surface would mean stringing more traps per line. Depending on the number of traps, that can be impractical and unsafe. That is precisely why it is so critical for the lobstermen to continue to participate in drafting new rules. They need to bring their knowledge and as many facts as possible to the table. The clock is ticking, but luckily it has not stopped.