Lobster fishermen are getting a temporary reprieve from federal diesel engine emissions standards because the cleaner running engines needed to power today’s bigger, faster fishing vessels farther and farther offshore have yet to hit the commercial market.

During a visit to Maine on Thursday, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is expected to announce that lobster and pilot boat builders will have another two to four years to meet low particulate, low nitrogen oxide emissions standards written into the national marine diesel program in 2008. The cleanest engines were to be used in all new large lobster boats by 2017.

Ed Jacobs of Nonesuch Oysters in Scarborough motors past lobster boats in the Nonesuch River in 2019. Lobster fishermen are getting a temporary reprieve from federal diesel engine emissions standards. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“This relief gives boat builders and operators flexibility to meet EPA standards during the next several years,” Wheeler said in a prepared statement. “The larger market for diesel engines can’t build new models quickly enough for marine users – putting these operators in potential violation of pollution rules through no fault of their own.”

Wheeler will talk about the emissions reprieve at a Kennebunkport resort Thursday afternoon following a tour of a local lobster pound. In the morning, he will tour some of Portland’s old contaminated industrial areas, also called brownfields, to underscore the $12.2 million in clean-up grants that Maine has received under President Trump.

The diesel engine standards controversy, and the possibility of a reprieve from Wheeler, has been building slowly for years, overshadowed by lobster bait shortages, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S.-China trade war on lobster exports, and the possibility that saving the North Atlantic right whale from extinction could mean an end to lobster fishing as it currently exists.

Trump has reached out to Maine’s lobster industry several times, meeting with fishermen in Bangor this year to discuss the impact of the trade war. He promised both financial relief for fishermen and retaliation for China if it didn’t live up to its January promise to buy more U.S. lobster. So far, however, U.S. lobster sales to China in 2020 are down, not up.

But he did reintroduce commercial fishing to the Northeast Canyon and Seamounts Marine National Monument, an administrative rebuke of government regulation that holds big political appeal among Maine fishermen but little practical value because the 4,900-square mile area is in southern New England and lobstering had never been banned.

The emissions reprieve is a tangible political spoil for those unable to buy the big, powerful new lobster boat they have coveted.

A dozen years after the diesel standards were set, manufacturers have yet to build a low-emission engine that can give lobstermen the speed and power they need to haul a deck full of lobster traps 40 miles or more to sea and a tank full of chilled lobsters home in a single day. Law enforcement boats and pilot boats fall into the same category. 

The operator’s grim choice: build a new boat with a weaker but greener engine, or stay with their old boat and its old, dirty engine.

But the waiver that Wheeler announced Thursday will give manufacturers more time to bring greener engines to market that will meet the performance needs of lobstermen, pilot boat operators and law enforcement agencies. Once the engines are available, builders also will need time to redesign their fiberglass hulls to hold the bigger engines and their emissions-reducing technology.

If manufacturers can’t produce greener engines that boat builders can fit into redesigned lobster, pilot and law enforcement vessels by the newly extended deadline, builders of these commercial vessels and their operators can seek a diesel engine exemption from EPA until the technology is available for commercial use, the EPA said.

Lobster boat builder Steve Wessel of Wesmac Custom Boats in Surry, one of the few builders making fiberglass boats longer than 50 feet, told the Ellsworth American he can’t start designing new lobster boats around compliant engines until they come to market. Without a waiver, the state’s lobster fleet and the $1.4 billion industry as a whole can’t grow.

This is creating havoc among customers and builders,” Wessel said.


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