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Steaming Ahead | August 2023

First published in Landings, August 2023

Everyone in the lobster industry should remember the date of June 16 with pride. It is the day that the lobster industry earned a historic victory when a panel of three Appeals Court judges unanimously ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) had abused its discretion and over regulated Maine’s lobster industry.

The events leading up to this historic win began to unfold in earnest in 2017, when 17 North Atlantic right whales died primarily in Canadian waters. That was when NMFS set in motion its plan to blame the lobster industry for the decline in the right whale population.

Lobstermen responded immediately, expressing frustration and bewilderment that they were being blamed for the right whale decline in spite of having complied with numerous protection measures over the past twenty years. They questioned why significant new restrictions on them were necessary. Regulators dismissed these concerns, chalking it up to the usual knee jerk reaction from lobstermen who grumble anytime regulations are proposed.

Photo by C.Clegg

Yet, this time the lobstermen’s reaction to NMFS’s plan to hold them accountable for the abrupt decline of the right whale was different. Maine lobstermen — all of them — were adamant that NMFS was wrong. And because this felt so wrong to each and every lobsterman, the MLA set out to understand what was harming right whales by sifting through scientific studies and decades of right whale injury and mortality data. The MLA needed to understand why NMFS and the lobster industry’s points of view were so far apart.

As the MLA dug through the data, we raised red flags over numerous issues concerning how the agency was interpreting, modeling and presenting these data. The MLA called the agency out at meetings, sent emails and letters, requested corrections — you name it, the MLA tried it. Yet at every turn NMFS dug its heels in and refused to budge.

It was clear that NMFS had locked into a strategy that had Maine’s lobster industry in its crosshairs. The agency had made up its mind that the lobster fishery was the primary suspect in the right whale decline, and so lobstermen would have to fall into line and do whatever NMFS said was necessary to save the species. Yet lobstermen were unshakeable in their protest that this made no sense

The more MLA trudged deeper and deeper into NMFS’s data, the more flaws we found in the agency’s analysis. When MLA continued to bring these flaws to light, nearly everyone pushed back and told us that is not how the system worked. No amount of data review or common sense was going to persuade NMFS to change its course.

As the MLA’s understanding of NMFS’s data deepened, it became crystal clear that lobstermen’s concerns were well-founded and that NMFS was headed down a path that would not only cause significant and unnecessary harm to Maine’s lobster industry but was unlikely to reverse the right whale decline. Just how far NMFS had veered off track with its dysfunctional approach was revealed when the Biological Opinion and its 98% risk reduction measures were released in 2021. The MLA knew immediately that NMFS’s plan would result in the devastation of the Maine lobster industry. That was when it became clear that the association needed to expand its efforts or Maine’s lobstering heritage would become a thing of the past.

Few believed the statistics that the MLA had uncovered –- zero right whale deaths ever attributed to the Maine lobster fishery and zero entanglements documented in our fishery since 2004. The MLA stood alone in pressing NMFS on its use of the science, pointing out that the agency’s own data did not support its assumptions that U.S. fisheries were responsible for half of right whale entanglements, or that the lobster industry was responsible for nearly all of U.S. entanglement deaths, or that right whales never die of natural causes.

With the future of the lobster industry at stake, the MLA board understood that it must sue NMFS. If it didn’t, there would be no lobster fishery in just a short time.

Despite the MLA having a tiny staff and an already strained budget, no other stakeholder group would be able to take NMFS on. The MLA would not sit back and let NMFS cherry pick which data to run in its model to ensure a prediction of imminent continued decline in the right whale population. The MLA would not allow Maine lobstermen to be held accountable for saving right whales that they were not harming.

The MLA channeled its belief in the lobster industry to leave no stone unturned in the fight. We hired lawyers, we went on payment plans, and we launched a fundraising campaign. At a time when it seemed that nearly everyone had been brainwashed by NMFS and the environmental groups into believing that the lobster industry was driving the right whale species toward extinction, Maine people and businesses stepped up to make the lawsuit possible.

Even when the MLA lost its case in Washington D.C. District Court in 2022, the Maine lobstering community continued to support us. The MLA immediately appealed the District court ruling. Our supporters understood that the fight would not be easy and that more funds were necessary to stay in it. You stuck with us.

It was then that MLA’s hard work and perseverance finally paid off. Not only did the MLA win its appeal, but the association also played a critical role in changing federal law to help save the fishery. Who would have thought that a small grassroots fishing association could achieve two massive wins in two of our three branches of government? Historic indeed!

These victories are truly a David and Goliath tale. The MLA has put it all on the line to fight for what we believe in — Maine’s lobster industry! Your trust and support of the MLA, and the belief from so many communities, businesses and individuals in the importance of the fishery have made these victories possible.

Thank you to all who support the MLA!

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