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Mills urges feds to hold in-person hearings in Maine on fishing changes to protect right whales

In this Oct. 19, 2012 file photo lobsterman Norman Haynes loads traps onto a trailer at sunrise in Falmouth, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Oct. 19, 2012 file photo lobsterman Norman Haynes loads traps onto a trailer at sunrise in Falmouth, Maine.

Gov. Janet Mills and members of Maine’s congressional delegation are raising concerns about the pace of federal efforts to prevent whale entanglements and whether Maine’s lobster industry will have a chance to provide input on potential changes.

In a letter sent Tuesday to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Mills accused the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of moving at a "breakneck pace" as it develops new plans to reduce the risks of whale entanglements in fishing gear. Mills also strongly criticized the agency for scheduling only a single webinar to gather feedback from the fishing community and other stakeholders as well as for suggesting that state officials hold additional scoping sessions on the potential federal changes.

“It is unconscionable for NOAA to only hold a single public hearing and a virtual meeting at that,” Mills wrote. “As NOAA well knows, effectively reaching an audience of fishermen with challenging schedules absolutely requires in-person meetings and opportunities for comment.” Instead, Mills is calling on the agency to hold multiple meetings in Maine so that NOAA staff can meet in-person with fishermen.

There are roughly 350 North Atlantic right whales left on the planet and biologists say ship strikes and fishing gear are top threats to the species.

Fishing groups and Maine politicians are pushing hard against new gear and fishing restrictions, arguing that that no whale deaths have been directly linked to Maine's billion-dollar lobster industry. But conservation groups pushing for greater protections counter that fishing gear is often difficult to pinpoint where the gear game from because it is frequently so degraded or is unrecoverable.

Last week, a federal judge rejected an attempt by the lobster industry and the state of Maine to delay new gear and fishing restrictions aimed at protecting whales. In July, meanwhile, a federal judge ruled that federal fisheries regulators were failing to adequately protect right whales from the harm posed by fishing gear.

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation, meanwhile, urged the National Marine Fisheries Service to provide stakeholders with access to a key tool that will be used to evaluate the different types of proposed measures to reduce the potential for whale entanglements. The delegation members – Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree and Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King – requested the agency provide impacted stakeholders with immediate access to the “decision support tool” or an extension of the timeline for the next phase of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan.

“NMFS should not prioritize expediency when doing so compromises the very survival of Maine’s lobster fishery,” the delegation wrote to Janet Coit, assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Marine Fisheries Service. “This approach will also undermine stakeholder faith in the process and may ultimately yield a new regulatory framework that does not provide additional protections for right whales while potentially shutting down the entire lobster industry.”