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Feb. 23—Maine Gov. Janet Mills said Monday she has "grave concern" about a federal plan aimed at protecting the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale, and warned that if the plan is adopted it could prove economically devastating to the state and endanger the Maine lobster fishery.
"The survival of Maine's iconic lobster fishery, and in fact, our heritage, through the future of Maine's independent lobstermen and women, depend on your willingness to act," Mills wrote in a letter filed with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration on Feb. 19.
Mills wrote that Maine fishermen should not be penalized by the fact that right whales swim into Canadian waters and suffer injuries from fishing gear.
"This is untenable. Maine, and other U.S. fisheries, should not have to pay an ever increasing price for the risk facing right whales as they travel into Canadian waters," Mills wrote.
Mills called on NOAA to develop "practical solutions" that protect right whales but allow fishing to continue. Her statements come just before two public hearings to consider amendments to NOAA's Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan.
Those virtual hearings will be held Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. for southern Maine and Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. for northern Maine. Both will last about two hours and require pre-registration https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/4167147282087010060. Anyone unable to participate in the virtual hearings can submit comments to NOAA by March 1.
"In the absence of a significant change, this framework will necessitate the complete reinvention of the Maine lobster fishery," Mills said in a news release Monday. "Despite other documented sources of serious injury and mortality to right whales, the draft Biological Opinion, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, includes a Conservation Framework that calls for a 98 percent risk reduction over ten years in U.S. fixed gear fisheries, including lobster."
NOAA says the steps are necessary to reduce the risk to whales from fishing gear used in waters they frequent.
NOAA said the proposed rule would include the introduction of weak, breakaway spots in vertical lines. Ropeless fishing, which prevents whale entanglement by eliminating lines, is under consideration, but Maine fishermen argue that even if it can be perfected it will be too expensive.
"Maine fishermen have worked collaboratively with the Department of Maine Resources for over twenty years to develop and implement measures to protect whales," Mills said. "They have been active participants at the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team table, looking for solutions that both maximize benefits to right whales and remain practicable for safe operations at sea."
"If this comes to pass, it is not only fishermen and their crews who will be impacted, gear suppliers, trap builders, rope manufacturers — all these businesses face a deeply uncertain future," Mills said.
The North Atlantic right whale has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when its population bottomed out at about 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but a combination of low birth rates and deaths from ship strikes and fishing line entanglements have sent numbers tumbling. The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium estimates only 409 whales survived 2018, down from about 428 in 2017 and 457 in 2016.