Gov. Janet Mills says Maine will not go along with a federal plan to reduce North Atlantic right whale mortality by reducing lobster lines 50 percent.

Instead, she directed state Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Pat Keliher to come up with an alternate plan for contributing to a coastwide goal of cutting losses of the highly endangered species by 60 percent.

“I stand with you,” Mills wrote in a July 11 open letter to the lobster industry. “I will do everything I can as your governor to protect your rights and your livelihoods, and defend Maine’s lobster industry in the face of absurd federal overreach.”

Mills is reacting to widespread alarm among lobstermen, Keliher and other state officials who fear an action plan recommended in April by a federal task force will decimate the industry, valued at $1 billion annually in addition to the $485 million catch landed last year.

“There is a disturbing lack of evidence connecting the Maine lobster industry to recent right whale deaths,” Mills wrote, citing reports of six right whale deaths in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence so far this year. “The Maine lobster fishery is not the primary problem for right whales.”

The task force organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — formally known as a take reduction team — recommended state fisheries regulators reduce overall lobster lines in the water, and weak rope toppers on lines in deeper water to reduce whale entanglements.

Some lobstermen have said they are willing to change how they fish to help the whales, but in meetings to introduce the proposal in June, opposition was widespread. State regulators also have questioned the science and rationale behind the plan.

Last week, Maine members of Congress wrote to President Donald Trump, urging him to intervene directly. NOAA officials have been stressing their intent to take immediate action for additional whale protections.

“With fewer than 95 breeding females left, protecting every individual is a top priority,” said Chris Oliver, NOAA assistant administrator for fisheries, in a July 3 statement. “Right whales cannot withstand continued losses of mature females — we have reached a critical point.

“Preventing any additional deaths of North Atlantic right whales is our highest priority. To do this, we must work with our partners to strengthen protections immediately. As such, I wrote to the Canadian government (Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as Transport Canada) to request that we meet as soon as possible and urge them to take immediate action to provide comprehensive protection for this species.”

Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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