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Steaming Ahead- October 2021

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) made history on September 27, 2021 when it filed suit against the federal government in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia over NMFS’s draconian whale plan. The MLA’s lawsuit claims that NMFS’s 10-year whale plan and the new final rule are not based on sound science, will not adequately protect whales but will decimate the Maine lobster fishery.

The MLA will not sit back and let the government or environmental community decimate the lobster fishery. M Young photo

The MLA has worked tirelessly over the past two decades to insist that the whale rules be based on the best available science and to ensure that conservation measures would actually benefit right whales without causing unnecessary harm to the Maine lobster fishery. The MLA has worked in good faith with stakeholders at all levels — serving on the Take Reduction Team since its inception in 1996, participating in numerous research projects to develop and test whale-safe gear, attending hundreds of meetings, submitting letter after letter to federal agencies, and meeting with officials in all levels of government — only to find our concerns have neither been heard nor addressed. With the publication of the draft Biological Opinion in January we learned of NMFS’s plan to wipe out the Maine lobster fishery with a mandated 98% risk reduction over ten years. It became crystal clear that we had exhausted our options and would need to look to the courts for relief. A whirlwind of a year began as we quickly geared up to fight this plan and to do it right.

The MLA prepared for the inevitable reality that our only chance of saving the Maine lobster fishery would be to sue NMFS. By February, the MLA had assembled, then expanded a legal and policy team with expertise in fisheries, the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The MLA also hired scientists to review the new models developed by NMFS and dug deeper into the data to try to make sense of the scientific basis for NMFS’s rules. I am truly proud of the lawsuit the MLA has filed against NMFS. It is based on a deep understanding of the flaws in NMFS’s science and of what is allowed under the law. The MLA was able to do this because of our diligent research and persistent efforts to push NMFS to be accountable for its actions over the past five years. We’ve pressed the agency every step of the way to do right by the right whales and by the lobster fishery. We’ve also made sure that the media understand what is actually happening. As a result, you do not hear NMFS deny the fact that the Maine lobster fishery has never been linked to a right whale death or serious injury or that the last known right whale entanglement in Maine lobster gear happened more than 17 years ago. The MLA’s research also revealed that vessel strikes were responsible for more than three-quarters of right whale deaths in the U.S. over the last ten years, another fact you won’t hear from the agency but also one that they won’t deny. The media now regularly report these facts.

We know that the Maine lobster fishery has done a lot to reduce risk to right whales. We also know that right whales continue to shift even further away from where we fish, we know that whales are dying in Canada and we know that they are getting hit by ships. At the same time NMFS has set a whale plan in motion that requires us to reduce our risk to these whales by 98% or they will not permit the federal waters fishery. I guess we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for NMFS to mandate that the shipping industry reduce its risk to the whales by 98%! Kristan Porter hit the nail on the head when he said, “NMFS is targeting Maine lobstermen because it is easy. We’re a bunch of small, owner-operated businesses. Taking on Canada and the shipping industry is hard… but if NMFS really wants to save right whales, they should be going after the things we know are actually killing them rather than dismantling our fishery piece by piece.”

Well, we’ve got news for the federal government. Maine lobstermen are no longer an easy target. Thanks to the generous support from so many in the lobster industry, we are finally standing up and taking control of our own destiny. We will not sit back and allow NMFS to pick and choose which science it uses to appease environmental groups while it hands us a 10-year ticking time bomb that will eliminate our fishery.

The MLA is prepared. We have the experience, we have the knowledge, and we have a skilled team in place. We have a fighting chance.

Maine lobstermen have so much to be proud of — you have created one of the most sustainable fisheries in the world. We believe in conservation and stewardship, we believe in independence, we believe in our heritage, and we hope and pray that we can continue to pass on this way of life to our children. We will not sit back and let the government or the environmental community take this away from us. We will do our part save right whales, but we will not be forced to make changes that will dismantle our fishery while right whales continue to suffer injury and death in the waters around us.

This is just the first step in a long and difficult battle. I urge you to keep in touch with your MLA board members and to support the Legal Defense Fund. We are going head-to-head with the federal government and with the deep-pocketed environmental groups. We are all in this fight, to the finish. As always, stay safe on the water.

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