Gov. Janet Mills is directing the Maine Department of Marine Resources to come up with an alternative to a federal plan to protect the endangered right whale from the state lobster industry, saying she won’t allow “foolish” regulations to make life harder for the state’s fishermen.

“I stand with you,” Mills wrote in an open letter to the lobster industry Thursday. “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.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has ordered Maine to craft a detailed plan to reduce the lobster industry’s threat to right whales by 60 percent by September. Federal regulators say entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes are driving the whale’s decline, with just over 400 of them left.

But state regulators, and now Mills, say Maine isn’t to blame for the decline.

“There is a disturbing lack of evidence connecting the Maine lobster industry to recent right whale deaths,” Mills wrote, citing news reports of six right whale deaths in Canada this year. “The Maine lobster fishery is not the primary problem for right whales.”

In the letter, Mills called the pending regulation “unfair, unreasonable, and unwarranted” and said the federal government shouldn’t underestimate Maine’s determination to defend the lobster industry and the state economy from “foolish, unsupported and ill-advised regulations.”

Instead, Mills is directing Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher to come up with a new risk reduction target based on the industry’s actual risk to right whales. Keliher will present a plan to achieve this new goal to the industry in August and the National Marine Fisheries Service in September.

Keliher insists Maine will keep working with federal regulators on how to best protect the right whale.

“We are going to put together a plan based on the risk as we see it, not as they see it,” Keliher said. “We are at a disagreement. We’re not saying hell no. But I’ll be damned if we’re going to stand by while they put rules in place that hurt the fishery and has no benefits to whales.”

Keliher shared Mills’ decision with the federal official that oversees fishery regulations on Wednesday night. On Thursday, NOAA’s fisheries division said it was disappointed to learn Maine might withdraw from its commitment to the regional 60 percent risk reduction plan.

But NOAA also said it remains ready to work with Maine to achieve regionally drafted protections.

“We understand Maine is still working to implement protective measures,” the statement said. “They are also committed to preserving coastal communities that rely on lobster commercially and culturally. This is a difficult task. … NOAA Fisheries shares these same two goals.”

Some fishermen complained that it took Mills too long to come to their defense, and some worried her feisty tone might prompt federal regulators to take even more drastic action to protect the right whale, but many welcomed the support from the Blaine House.

“It’s nice to know the governor was listening to us,” said Cutler lobsterman Kristan Porter, the head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “We’ve been saying our share of the risk is wrong from the start, but we weren’t getting anywhere. Maybe with the governor behind us, we will get some more traction.”

Maine’s congressional delegation applauded Mills’ decision to contest the right whale regulation so it more accurately reflects the reality in the Gulf of Maine.

“This reassessment is warranted in order to achieve a science-informed and equitable solution that protects the fragile right whale population without unfairly or disproportionately burdening the Maine lobster industry,” the four members of the delegation said in Thursday’s joint statement.

Earlier this week, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, sent a letter to President Trump urging his direct intervention on behalf of the Maine lobster industry. Last month, Pingree and Golden failed to get the House of Representatives to withhold NOAA funding until its risk reduction tool underwent scientific review.

The letter to Trump prompted a withering response Thursday from the Conservation Law Foundation, which sought a meeting with Golden to discuss the delegation’s “disregard for science, resort to untruths, and indifference to the plight of an iconic New England species.”

In April, a group tasked with protecting the right whale agreed to meet that 60 percent risk reduction target by using weak rope toppers on buoy lines in deeper waters and reducing buoy lines overall by 50 percent. That group included Maine state fishing regulators and fishermen.

The group, known as a take reduction team, agreed to leave the details of how Maine should reduce its buoy lines up to individual states. Buoy lines are the surface-to-seabed ropes that connect lobster traps to the buoys that mark the location of the underwater fishing gear.

At the time, the Maine contingent reserved the right to change its mind after it had time to review the way the federal regulators came up with the risk reduction target and talk with the state’s diverse 4,500-member commercial lobster fleet about how the plan would impact the industry.

Lobstermen fish differently in almost every port along Maine’s 3,500-mile coastline. Some are willing to reduce the number of buoy lines – the ones that pose the biggest entanglement threat to right whales – by setting fewer traps overall, while others would prefer to fish more traps at the end of fewer buoy lines.

The risk reduction target met with almost universal opposition when state regulators presented it to the industry at a series of meetings in June. Like Maine state regulators, lobstermen questioned the science behind the risk reduction target, and argued it would put their lives, and their livelihoods, at risk.

The industry’s description of how the plan would impact safety and the state economy alarmed Keliher. Fishermen warned Keliher that the catch would go down and expensive traps would be lost, littering the sea floor with so-called ghost gear, Keliher said. The arguments resonated with him and Mills.

“Safety was a driving factor, certainly when it comes to trawling up,” Keliher said in reference to fishing more traps at the end of a single buoy line. “You’re hearing fishermen say I don’t think I can do it, but I’ll try if I have to. Those are red flags. Big, big giant red flags.”

Last year, Maine fishermen landed 119.6 million pounds of lobster valued at $485 million, making it the state’s most valuable fishery. Economists have estimated the industry adds another $1 billion to the state economy, after the sales of lobster and lobster products are included.

This story was updated at 12:30 p.m. on July 12 to clarify the congressional delegation’s support for the letter to President Trump.  

 

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.