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December 21, 2022

Congress expected to vote on federal lobster rule 'pause' this week

person on boat Screenshot Fisherman Curt Brown said he was optimistic about a six-year pause on federal regulations.

A deal is in the works to put a six-year "pause" on enacting federal lobster fishing regulations.

There's also a proposal to fund a study on how to improve lobstering gear, as well as ways to monitor the movements of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Congress is expected to vote this week on an omnibus spending bill that would include those provisions, which were worked out by Maine’s Congressional delegation in conjunction with leaders in the lobster industry.

“We haven’t tied a bow on this package yet,” Gov. Janet Mills said this morning in a press conference.

Although the deal isn’t finalized yet, lifelong lobster fisherman Curt Brown was optimistic. 

“The future looks much brighter than it has for a long, long time,” said Brown, who spoke remotely from his boat. 

Brown has been lobstering since he was 8 years old. He said no one in the industry would dispute the idea that it’s important to protect the whales.

“I would argue there isn’t a group in the country that’s done more to protect right whales than Maine’s lobstermen and women,” he said. 

That includes a series of gear modifications implemented over the past two decades, he noted.

“I have a 7-year-old son who loves lobstering and a 5-year-old daughter who loves lobstering and, if they choose to, I hope they can make a future in this industry,” Brown said. “When it comes to protecting right whales, it’s something we take very seriously in this industry.”

The provision in the federal appropriations bill, expected to pass the Senate and House this week, would provide a six-year reprieve in the form of a "regulatory pause." 

The provision was based on input from the Maine Department of Marine Resources and drafted by U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine and Angus King, I-Maine, and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District and Jared Golden, D-2nd District.

They said the measure would enable the lobster fishery to continue to operate while still complying with the National Marine Fisheries Service's most recent rules on the North Atlantic right whale.

The provision deems the current right whale rules sufficient to ensure the continued operation of the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries for six years through Dec. 31, 2028, and also provides that new regulations for the two fisheries would take effect by that date.

The provision also authorizes a new grant program that could fund innovative gear technologies and the monitoring needed for the management of fisheries. 

A National Marine Fisheries Service plan calls for reducing the risk to right whales from fishing gear by at least 90%. The plan is based on the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, which allows less than one death per year of the endangered animal, based on its estimated population of fewer than 350.

The service said potential risk reduction measures could include weakened gear to allow whales to break away from entanglements; reducing the amount of fishing gear in the water column where right whales travel, either by closing fishing areas or reducing the number of buoy lines; improving identification of the source of entangling gear through increased gear marking; and/or establishing or modifying seasonal hot-spot management areas.

On Wednesday, Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said the plan “has already harmed, and could eventually eliminate, Maine’s multi-generational lobstering heritage while doing nothing to reduce the unacceptably high number of right whale deaths occurring in Canadian waters and from vessel strikes.”

The Congressional delegation’s provision, McCarron said, “is providing time to allow the lobster fishery to continue to operate while a new, lawful plan — based on realistic assumptions and the best scientific and commercial information — is developed without decimating this critical industry and the coastal and island communities that depend upon it.”

The Maine lobster fishery is not driving the right whale population decline and the fishery, according to federal data, and has never been linked with a right whale death, she added.

The provision also secures millions of dollars of funding to modernize gear technologies and provide monitoring necessary to support the dynamic management of fisheries. Fishermen and other participants within the maritime industry would be eligible for the funding.

Over the past two decades, Mills and others noted, Maine’s industry has removed 30,000 miles of fishing line from the water and fishermen have spent tens of thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to modify or change their gear to protect right whales. 

“Despite this fact, the federal government, which is being pushed by extremist organizations, is moving ahead with new regulations that would put an end” to Maine lobster fishery, Mills said.

Mills called the pause a compromise that would allow lobstermen to continue to operate under existing right whale rules, to continue research on innovative gear technologies and to implement a monitoring program to track right whale migrations.

“I’ve never seen a worse case of regulatory overreach to address a problem and blame an industry that is not at all responsible for a problem,” Collins said.

She added, “I’ve also never seen the Maine delegation, which is ideologically diverse, and the governor more united to protect an iconic way of life in the state of Maine.”

The provision would authorize up to $50 million per year from fiscal years 2023 through 2032 for gear research and up to $300,000 per year during the same period to study right whale migration in coordination with the government of Canada.

Recent data, said King, show the whales are moving offshore and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence – away from Maine’ lobster fishing areas. 

“One of the most frustrating things about this is the lobster industry was sentenced to economic death based on no evidence, no proof,” King said. 

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