On Monday, September 27, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Secretary of Commerce in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia challenging the federal government's 10-year whale protection plan.
A Little Background
On August 31, 2021, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a final rule implementing new regulations meant to reduce the risk of entangling right whales from lobster gear in the Gulf of Maine.
What’s in the final rule:
Modify gear markings to introduce state-specific colors for gear and increase the number of gear markings and areas requiring marked lines. (Gear markings are specific colors that are attached to a fisherman's gear in order to distinguish it from gear from other areas.)
Modify gear configuration to reduce the number of vertical lines by requiring more traps between buoy lines. (Some lobstermen have two traps on a line, and some lobstermen have up to 20 traps on a line of rope. This is all dependent on when and where they are fishing. This part of the rule requires lobstermen to increase the number of traps on a line to potentially decrease the number of lines in the water.)
Require weak insertions or weak rope in buoy lines.
Modify existing season closures/restricted areas. (For Maine fishermen, this includes closing an area that is 967 square miles from October to January.)
The MLA’s complaint asserts that NMFS’s new Biological Opinion, released in May, is unlawful because NMFS acted arbitrarily by, among other reasons, failing to rely on the best scientific information and inexplicably failing to account for the positive impact of conservation measures already adopted by the Maine lobster fishery. The complaint also asks for relief from the new whale rule arising from flaws in the Biological Opinion released in September.
“NMFS got it wrong. The science does not support the agency’s plan. Using worst-case scenarios that hold Maine lobstermen accountable for right whale deaths occurring in Canada won’t help protect right whales, but it will decimate Maine’s lobster industry.”
Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.
The MLA claims that NMFS has persistently ignored science and evidence submitted by the Association and other experts that would have enabled the agency to correct its mistakes. The MLA points to the undeniable success of the Maine lobster fishery’s existing right whale conservation measures implemented over the last 20 years. There has never been a known right whale serious injury or mortality associated with Maine lobster gear. Moreover, there has not been a single known right whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear in almost two decades.
“NMFS is targeting Maine lobstermen because it is easy. We’re a bunch of small, owner-operated businesses. Taking on Canada and the shipping industry is hard. Maine lobstermen understand the need to protect right whales, but if NMFS really wants to save right whales, they should be going after the things we know are actually killing them rather than dismantling our fishery piece by piece.”
Kristan Porter, Cutler lobsterman & president of the MLA.
According to the MLA’s complaint, “NMFS’s mandate ignores the reality that the Maine lobster fishery already has an extremely low incidence of interactions with right whales due, in part, to a suite of mitigation measures that have been implemented for many years. Reducing its already low impact by another 98% is not possible without driving most of Maine’s harvesters out of business permanently.”
It continues that NMFS disregards “critically important new scientific information about right whale migration patterns [that] shows that the Maine lobster fishery will continue to pose very little risk to North Atlantic right whales.”
According to MLA, NMFS’s ten‐year whale plan is already forcing unnecessary burdens on the fleet and will ultimately result in devastating economic hardship to Maine’s fleet of 4,800 individually owned and operated lobster fishing vessels and the tens of thousands of jobs they support, all of which are essential to Maine’s economy as well as irreplaceable aspects of the State’s coastal and maritime heritage.
The Maine Coast Fishermen's Association has been following this process closely. Not only do we work with many Maine lobstermen on issues pertaining to the working waterfront, but we recognize that what happens now will set a precedent for how issues pertaining to other fisheries and gear (e.g. gillnets) will be handled.