As federal regulators seek to put restrictions on fishing lines that could entangle an endangered whale species, a bipartisan group of Maine lawmakers are meeting to block rules they believe could hamper the state’s lucrative lobster industry.
And as part of the effort, they are threatening to take federal funding from one of the country’s most prestigious marine research centers after it urged consumers last month to stop eating lobster until better protections for North Atlantic right whales are in place. is.
“North Atlantic right whales have become entangled in American lobster gear numerous times over the past decade, and in the past three weeks we have seen a North Atlantic right whale known as Snow Cone, with gear not yet attached to a specific right whale. fishing, and reports of a humpback whale entangled in Maine lobster gear,” said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, vice president of global ocean conservation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.
The aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which makes recommendations for preserving sustainable fisheries, issued an advisory in early September urging consumers to stop eating American lobster. green (best choice) and yellow (a good alternative). Some restaurants and retailers, including popular meal delivery service HelloFresh, stopped offering lobster after the advisory was posted.
The red list added fuel to the lobster industry’s already tense battle with environmentalists who want NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, to bolster federal protections for the right whales, whose populations are now estimated by the agency. at less than 350.
In response to the red list and the drive for regulation, Maine’s congressional delegation — Republican Senator Susan Collins, Independent Senator Angus King, Republican Rep. Jared Golden and Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree – allied with Democratic Governor Janet Mills in attacking the aquarium and a high-pressure campaign against the Biden administration as it begins its process of reviewing fisheries regulations.
King and Golden passed legislation last week that would block federal funding for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, calling its scientific integrity into question. King said the institution has received nearly $197 million in federal funds since 2001.
“The ‘red list’ of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s lobster is an unwarranted attack on a proud, sustainable fishery and a clear attempt to put thousands of people out of work in Maine,” King said in a statement. “By refusing to provide any evidence to support their damaging decision and ignoring facts that undermine their conclusion, the aquarium has made it clear that they are not a serious scientific organization, and certainly not one that makes taxpayers’ money.”
But King’s bill — which he dubbed the Red Listing Monterey Bay Aquarium Act — would mainly deal a blow to the aquarium’s reputation.
Dianto Kemmerly said the aquarium has received less than $20 million in federal funding since it opened 38 years ago, and it had sales of more than $110 million in 2021, nearly half of which came from donations.
“This response distracts from the real problem: the urgent need for federal and state agencies to bring this fishery back into compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act so that these fisheries can coexist with whales,” she said. . . “Our role is to raise awareness of the problem. We don’t believe anyone wants this species to go extinct because of their seafood choices.”
Friends on the Hill
The aquarium has a number of friends in Congress, including Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. support research on the human impact on the whale species, with a focus on fishing gear. Both bills have yet to be discussed in committee.
According to NOAA Fisheries, right whales have experienced an “unusual mortality event” since 2017, with 10 percent of the population — about 30 whales — having suffered gear entanglements and ship collisions in the past five years.
Environmentalists blame the use of pots, traps or gillnets by the lobster men, especially those with vertical lines, for the whale’s endangered status, citing research that estimates that 80% of North Atlantic right whales die at least once. entangled in fishing gear.
NOAA Fisheries began cracking down on lobster lines with a 2021 rule, which received an immediate response from lobster men and the Maine delegation for setting too short a time frame to obtain necessary equipment, such as lines breaking when hit by a whale. . Lawmakers wrote to NOAA in February saying that if the rules weren’t delayed, it would cost the lobster industry more than $7 million.
But Lobster Men lost a major lawsuit in July when the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a ruling directing NOAA to propose even stricter equipment regulations than those the agency filed in 2021.
NOAA then proposed to change the rules with a statement of intent to begin a new regulatory process on Sept. 9, with the new plan aiming for a 90% reduction in risk to the whales.
The four Maine lawmakers railed against the rule changes at an Oct. 5 NOAA meeting in Portland, arguing that the agency hasn’t reported whale deaths from entanglement of the Maine lobster line since 2004. Pingree added that over the past decade, research has shown that right whales have left Maine’s waters as a result of climate change, leading to “an increase in deaths from ship strikes and entanglements in Canadian waters.”
“Nevertheless, Maine’s lobster industry has been forced to make drastic changes and bear the costs of reducing whale numbers — regardless of whether the whale killing can be associated with lobsters in the Gulf of Maine,” he said. they. “If lobster men and women are forced to comply with new regulations that make it impossible to continue fishing, many coastal businesses will also be affected and many will not survive.”
Dianto Kemmerly of Monterey Bay objected that while complications are hard to track, they still happen. Most whales that die from entanglement in fishing gear are not found, she said, and even if the fishing gear is recovered, “nine times out of 10 it cannot be linked back to a specific fishery.”
The delegation from Maine is not about to give up. Most recently, lawmakers wrote to NOAA urging the agency to hold at least one more meeting in Downeast Maine, the coastal area east of Bangor, after the meeting held Oct. 5 in Portland, on the state’s southwest coast, so was crowded.
“It is unacceptable for your agency to meet in person for just one hour near some of our state’s largest lobster ports, forcing lobsters to spend time on the water, which is their primary, if not only source of income” , they wrote in the letter.
The comment period for NOAA’s announcement of the right whale regulation closed Tuesday after collecting more than 4,000 comments. The agency has not yet announced next steps on the rule.
Lobster gear can be reduced, changed to save whales
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