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New England Fisheries Officials, Lawmakers Want NOAA To Slow Proposed Rules On Lobster Gear

Stephan Savoia
Associated Press file
In this April 10, 2008 file photo, a ballet of three North Atlantic right whale tails break the surface in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass.

The top marine resources officials from Maine and New Hampshire, joined by Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District, are sharply criticizing the federal government’s efforts to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale and are calling for a slowdown of plans to impose new rules that could be costly for New England’s lobster fleet.

In a letter sent Friday to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, Patrick Keliher, and his counterpart in New Hampshire say federal fisheries managers botched the rollout of a new and apparently flawed risk-assessment model.

It’s supposed to help measure the effectiveness of various strategies to reduce the chance that whales will be injured or killed by entanglement in fishing gear, from using weaker rope or breakaway rope for hauling traps to a specialized gadget that would cut line when a whale becomes entangled, imposing trap limits or targeted closures of areas where whales are known to be swimming.

“There are some things that are coming out of that tool and some questions that we have about the model or some of the ideas in it that doesn’t really pass the straight-face test for us,” says Erin Summers, Maine DMR’s point-person on the whale issue, during a NOAA webinar introducing stakeholders to the risk-assessment model.

That was just a week before a meeting now underway of a large stakeholder group called the Take Reduction Team, which is charged with making recommendations to NOAA for reducing the right whale’s annual mortality rates to less than one a year.

The DMR and others, such as Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron, say there are many questionable assumptions in the model, including one that leads to a prediction of a high risk of entanglement off midcoast Maine at a time of year when whales are unlikely to even be here.

“To have a government agency, a week before a meeting, to say, ‘This is the best we have, deal with it,’ is very disturbing,” she says.

Keliher, who could not be reached for comment, appears to agree. His letter enumerates concerns about the data tool and the process that led up to its deployment. Ultimately, he writes, NOAA should postpone rule-making on new regulations that’s due to start next week. Instead, he says, NOAA should delay any final decisions and allow time to subject the risk-assessment model to peer-review, and to give state regulators full access to its inner workings.

But NOAA officials say there are no plans to press the pause button.

“We do have plans to conduct a peer review in the future. But I think it’s important to remember that the tool is not making the decisions. It’s available to the Take Reduction Team members to help them come to a consensus decision,” says Dr. John Hare, NOAA’s science and research director for Northeast fisheries.

That team is made up of some 80 representatives of various groups from 14 coastal states: lobstermen, scientists, fisheries managers and conservationists. Hare says he and that group will give substantial consideration to criticisms by Keliher and others.

“So hopefully everyone will work hard together to come to recommendations to the agency that helps us to achieve our objectives in terms of right whale conservation, but then also allowing the lobster fishery and other fixed-gear fisheries to continue to operate profitably,” he says.

In an email, a lawyer for one group that has brought a lawsuit against the federal government for failing to protect the endangered whales, the Conservation Law Foundation, says new protections should not be delayed.

“We’re running out of time to bring the North Atlantic right whale back from the brink of extinction,” wrote CLF layer Emily Green. “NOAA has adequate information to move forward with a rulemaking, and parties can supplement modeling and data through the rulemaking process.”

But Golden is trying to put the brakes on from Capitol Hill. He sent NOAA a letter this week that reflects many of the same concerns raised by state regulators, and calling for a slowdown in the process.

“What we hope is to create a better process and get some feedback from the lobster community to NOAA and hopefully working together they’ll find a better solution that works for the fishing community,” he said.

In a joint statement, the other members of Maine’s congressional delegation say they are concerned about the speed with which NOAA is developing new gear rules, and plan to meet with stakeholders in Maine next week.

The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team continues its work all this week at a hotel in Providence, Rhode Island, and will try to achieve consensus on Friday. If that fails, however, NOAA still plans to move forward with new rules.

Originally published April 23, 2019 at 11:09 a.m. ET.

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.