Maine lobster industry may receive nearly $14 million in federal aid

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Jul. 1—Maine's lobster industry could receive close to $14 million in support from the federal government to help comply with new rules that are intended to save the critically endangered right whale from extinction.

If approved by Congress, the $14 million will be doled out to states through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to cover costs incurred by the fishing industry to comply with the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. Costs may include gear modification, configuration, and marking, both in federal and state waters.

Maine is expected to receive the lion's share of the money, since the state is home to the vast majority of the American lobster fleet. Maine lobstermen also received more than $17 million in federal aid in March as part of a $1.5 trillion omnibus funding package.

It was not clear Friday how the proposed $14 million might be allocated among the 4,500 to 5,000 licensed lobstermen in Maine.

The funding has been included in the House of Representatives' Commerce, Justice, and Science Fiscal Year 2023 Appropriations bill. The House Appropriations Committee approved the bill Friday. From there, it will be voted on by the full House.

The Senate conducts a similar process, and once both chambers have approved the bills, they will be sent to a conference to reconcile any differences. Both chambers will then vote on the compromised bill and, if approved, send it to the president.

U.S. Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree, both Democrats from Maine, helped secure the funding and pledged to keep advocating for the fishery.

In a statement, Golden called the regulations misguided, indefensible and economically damaging.

"NOAA has been unable to prove that these regulations will work, but lobstermen are still being forced to pick up the tab," he said. "It's just wrong."

The new regulations will only serve to add to existing threats to the lobster industry, like warming waters, the pandemic and supply chain disruption, Pingree said.

The rules in question are the latest round of federal fishing gear regulations, which are the first phase of a 10-year plan to reduce the risk of right whale entanglements by 98 percent.

There are fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales today.

Since 2017, a particularly deadly year for whales, regulators have recorded 34 right whale deaths — nine of those from entanglement in fishing gear. In the same period, 16 live whales have been documented with serious injuries from entanglements or vessel strikes. "Serious injuries" means the whale is likely to die from its injuries, though it was alive at last sighting.

None of that fishing gear has been linked to Maine, though a historic lack of state-specific gear marking has made it difficult to determine where many entanglements occurred.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 85 percent of right whales show signs of entanglements. There have been no known right whale deaths in 2022, according to NOAA.

Regulatory changes include a combination of gear modification and the seasonal closure of a roughly 1,000-square-mile area in the Gulf of Maine.

Lobstermen have said repeatedly that the rules are dangerous, expensive, unnecessary, and run the risk of destroying the lobster industry.

The gear modifications require lobstermen to splice NOAA-approved weak rope or weak plastic links into the lines they use to connect buoys to traps on the ocean bottom so that the lines will break away if a whale becomes entangled. But the approved gear has been in short supply as manufacturers struggle to produce enough to outfit the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fishing gear.

Virginia Olsen, director of the Maine Lobstering Union, said the money will help keep fishermen in business as they "work to right the wrongs" of the new regulations.

"During these difficult times for (the) industry, it is critical that lobstermen have the resources they need to stay on the water," she said.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, agreed.

Complying with the "onerous" new regulations will require extensive time and money for supplies and labor, she said.

The association is suing the federal government, claiming the new regulations are based on flawed science and will not help the whales. It argues that right whales are not using the area of the Gulf of Maine where lobstermen fish and would be better protected by addressing their other threats.

Regulators counter that the whales continue to travel through Maine waters and that the changes are necessary to protect the species from extinction.

McCarron said Friday that the case is fully briefed and she expects the federal court in Washington, D.C., to issue a decision as soon as this summer.

"We still have a long road ahead as (the fisheries service) continues to press forward on the next phase of whale rules for the lobster fishery," she wrote in a June 15 memo to association members. "And it is very likely that, regardless of how the court rules, these cases could be appealed."

McCarron also said that the association sent a clear message to regulators and environmental groups that the association "will not sit back and let them erase Maine's lobstering heritage through false narratives, inadequate science or wrongful use of the law."

The restricted area was closed from October to January and the remaining regulations went into effect May 1. However, enforcement has been delayed until the supply chain issues are resolved.

So far, there has been a high degree of compliance, McCarron said.

"The industry has really stepped up to get the new gear modifications implemented, despite early failures with poor quality products and the inability to purchase what they needed due to supply chain issues," she said.

There are a few new weak ropes about to come on the market, and lobstermen are on waiting lists to purchase them. The few who have been able to test the new ropes report that they are much better than the weak rope that is currently available, she said.