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Guest Column: A lifeline for Maine's lobster industry

By U..S. Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Maine Governor Janet Mills

Courtesy of US Senate

Several years ago, when NOAA began working on regulations that drastically affect Maine’s lobster fishery without meaningfully advancing the stated goal of protecting endangered right whales, the five of us pledged that we would pursue all policy solutions to protect our hardworking lobstermen and women.

The inclusion of provisions in the federal omnibus funding bill that postpones the implementation of any new whale rules by NOAA for six years is a down payment on that pledge. Working together in a nonpartisan spirit and across levels of government, we achieved a victory for our State, for our iconic and vital lobster industry, and for common sense.

While we are proud of this accomplishment, the resilience shown by the men and women of the industry was our inspiration. In the face of misguided threats to their livelihoods and their way of life, they responded with determination and facts. The expertise provided by the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Maine Lobstermen’s Association, and Maine Lobstering Union was essential to this process.

Our provisions mean that for the next six years, the current right whale regulations will be frozen in place, allowing more time to gather data to pinpoint what is causing the demise of the right whale. It is a measure to protect the family businesses of the thousands of Mainers who make their living from one of the best managed and sustainable fisheries on earth. It also gives the industry and regulators time to develop effective and practicable policies regarding fixed-gear fisheries and marine mammals. Without this provision, an industry that contributes more than $1 billion annually to Maine’s economy and supports small businesses all along our coast could have been faced with a complete shutdown, and the ripple effects across our state would have been widespread.

Maine lobstermen and women have long demonstrated their commitment to maintaining and protecting their sustainable fishery. They have invested in countless precautionary measures to protect right whales, including removing more than 30,000 miles of line from the water and switching to weaker rope to prevent whales from being entangled.

And the fact is, there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear. We know the right whale population can be protected along with a thriving fishery because Maine lobstermen and women are already doing it. This industry has a longstanding ethic of practicing sustainability by protecting the health of the lobster stock, and also by treating the entire marine environment with respect and care. The industry recognizes the precarious situation of the North Atlantic right whale, and for decades has been proactive in ensuring that the fishery and the whales can co-exist.

In addition to postponing the implementation of additional regulations for six years, the provision in the funding bill provides $20 million for a grant program that could fund innovative gear technologies and the monitoring necessary to support the dynamic management of fisheries. Fishermen and other participants within the maritime industry would be among those eligible for this funding. Another $22 million was provided for additional research and monitoring efforts for right whales, so any future regulations would be informed on real data, not hypotheticals. We also secured an additional $10 million for states to provide direct payments to lobstermen and women to offset the costs associated with the gear modifications that they have made over the past several years.

The lobster industry is Maine’s economic engine, sustaining not only the men and women who fish but entire communities. Fishermen are willing to make changes to proactively protect whales and have been active participants in the ongoing discussions, but Maine’s lobster industry is not to blame for the decline in the right whale population. Before any additional regulations are implemented, lobstermen deserve to know that these measures are backed by sound science. As this process moves forward, we will continue working together to push for reasonable solutions that protect Maine’s vital lobster industry and safeguard right whales and other marine mammals.

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