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Maine Delegation Wants Trump To Intervene On Whale Rules That Could Hurt Lobster Fleet

Maine’s Congressional Delegation is appealing directly to President Donald Trump to intervene in a federal rulemaking process that aims to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, but which could cause large-scale disruption in this state’s lobster industry.In a letter to the president, Maine’s four members of Congress say the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s model rules are based on incomplete data and untested science.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District says state lobstermen support action to protect the whales, whose numbers have dwindled to fewer than 420 over the last decade. But she says they should not have to pull half of their rope out of the water, as proposed, without better evidence that their gear is in fact responsible for entanglements.

“My biggest worry was we’re going to ask our fishermen to comply with a whole bunch of new ideas and it still won’t fix things for the real problems that the right whale is facing today,” she says.

But conservation groups that are suing for quicker federal action to protect the whales were outraged by the letter. Emily Green, an attorney with the Maine chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation, says that a broad group of stakeholders convened by NOAA, called the Take Reduction Team, or TRT, had signed off on the proposed rules with near-unanimous consent.

“This letter is obstructing and undermining a long overdue process in which the lobster fishery has significant representation and influence, that resulted in a negotiated plan of action. The Maine delegation’s letter indicates a disregard for the Endangered Species Act and the Take Reduction Team process, not to mention all of the Mainers who are extremely alarmed about the dire situation that is facing these whales,” she says.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District is defending the letter, which calls for a meeting with White House officials, details arguments against NOAA’s proposed actions and suggestS that Trump’s intervention would be in line with his regulatory philosophy.

Golden says that the Endangered Species Act and pressure from special interests are putting an unfair burden on the industry.

“Certainly they may be able to make a case from their perspective that the law is going to force the lobster community to comply, but that doesn’t mean that they are actually solving the problem that they claim they are. In my opinion that’s a moral issue, and a perfect example of why sometimes the law and government is not on the right side of the issue,” he says.

Golden says the industry and its allies may have supported the proposed gear rule, but that was only after federal regulators made clear that they might otherwise impose a rule of their own making.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, says the estimates of risk posed by the Maine fleet are based on a model that has yet to be peer reviewed. She says that since agreeing under pressure to the proposal, it has become more and more clear to Maine lobstermen that the broad rope-removal requirement is not workable.

“A fisherman could probably figure out a way to make that reduction, but collectively because of the diversity of the fleet, we are bumping into safety issues, operational issues, economic issues, and to knit together a plan that will work for the Maine lobster fishery that will actually help right whales has proved to be far more difficult than we anticipated,” she says.

McCarron says the government should go back to the drawing board and set more realistic risk reduction goals.

White House and NOAA officials could not immediately be reached for comment. Initial briefs in the conservation groups federal lawsuit seeking more robust action are due at the end of this week.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.