On Aug.31, the National Marine Fisheries Service released the long-awaited final rule which outlines measures for the Northeast lobster fishery to reduce the risk of entangling right whales by 60 percent. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is committed to action to recover the North Atlantic right whale, but the species cannot rebuild without a conservation plan supported by scientific evidence and comparable measures implemented in Canada and the U.S. shipping industry. The MLA remains extremely concerned that NMFS is placing an unwarranted burden on the Maine lobster fishery.

[Editor’s Note: This a letter to Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance from the Maine Lobstermen’s Association on Sept. 3, 2021.]

The U.S. lobster fishery implemented new regulations more than a decade ago which have reduced known right whale entanglement in U.S. lobster gear by 90 percent.

“According to NMFS data, the Maine lobster fishery has not had a documented entanglement with a North Atlantic right whale in over 17 years and has never been known to kill or seriously injure a right whale,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the MLA.

By comparison, an historic number of right whales have died in Canadian waters over the past five years, and Canada has yet to implement protections comparable to the U.S. Moreover, the most current, best available scientific evidence documents a change in right whale migration patterns away from Maine waters and into Canada and other areas.

NMFS’s analysis justifying the final rule inexplicably underweights risk to right whales in Canada by ignoring observed trends in right whale mortality. NMFS cannot point to evidence that the required measures will achieve the intended goal because they have not properly assigned risk from the sources of harm to right whales.

“NMFS has mandated that Maine lobstermen reduce risk to right whales by an additional 98 percent over the next 10 years based on the worst-case scenario instead of using best available data and realistic assumptions,” noted McCarron, “The final rule is just the first round of economic impacts and future restrictions will likely destroy Maine’s iconic lobster fishery.” The MLA does not believe the scientific record supports implementation of the 10-year federal plan.

The MLA has three overarching concerns with the final rule. First, the Lobster Management Area 1 Seasonal Restricted Area is much larger than it needs to be to reduce risk from the Maine lobster fishery. Second, NMFS has made drastic, last-minute changes to the gear marking requirements for Maine, which will likely require lobstermen to purchase a second set of buoy lines to fish legally marked gear. Third, the final rule lacks the flexibility for lobstermen to innovate and propose equally protective yet less costly approaches.

The MLA wrote to NMFS and met with the White House Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in late July to urge the federal government to tailor the size and duration of the Area 1 closure, streamline the approval process for conservation equivalencies, and not make last-minute changes to Maine’s gear marking system. The MLA’s concerns were echoed by the Maine Department of Marine Resources and Maine’s Congressional delegation. MLA is disappointed none of these reasonable requests were accommodated.

“We are extremely frustrated by last-minute changes to gear marking without any input from Maine lobstermen, and that the closure is much larger than it needs to be to protect right whales. According to the state, reducing the size of the closure in December and January would have a negligible impact on conservation benefit to right whales,” noted McCarron.

The MLA is committed to supporting both the continued viability of the Maine lobster fishery and the recovery of the North Atlantic right whale through management measures that cost-effectively address documented risks based on the best available science. Maine lobstermen are world leaders in conservation and stewardship. They take pride in their longstanding sustainable fishing practices, which include more than two decades of implementation of successful measures to protect whales. Since NMFS formed the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team in 1997, the MLA has been fully engaged in work to reduce the potential risks to right whales from entanglement in fishing gear.

For more information about the whale rules, visit the NMFS ALWTRP web page.

Maine Lobstermen’s Association

Kennebunk, Maine

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