Maine Congressman Jared Golden and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree are trying to block funding for federal rules that would force Maine lobstermen to take half of their gear-rope out of the water. The issue is part of the debate over how best to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale against potentially deadly entanglement.
With Pingree's support, Golden is introducing an amendment to an appropriations bill that would block federal regulators from moving forward with new rules on fishing gear that poses a risk to the roughly 415 whales left on the planet.
Golden says a modeling tool that federal scientists created to assess the risk posed by Maine lobstermen's trap-rope has not been subjected to a needed scientific peer-review.
"They're operating, I think, rather blindly in this regard," says Golden.
Golden points to recent research suggesting that the whales are bypassing traditional seasonal feeding grounds in Maine's coastal waters. That is because a staple of their diet — a tiny crustacean called Calanus finmarchicus — appears to be decreasing in abundance here, leading the whales to seek more abundant supplies of food off New Brunswick.
Golden notes that in 2017 — when an unusually high number of right whales died — 12 were found dead in Canadian waters, and only five in the U.S.
"People think that the migratory patterns of the whales are changing,” he says. “If they're not coming through the Gulf of Maine or not to the scale that they have in the past, then perhaps that means this tool and the data being put into it needs to be changed."
But determining the exact cause of a whale's death is not easy. And the federal government decided that for the purposes of managing protection efforts, it would assign half of the likely risk of human-caused whale mortality to Canada, and half to the United States.
In an interview earlier this week, before Golden proposed his amendment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) top fisheries scientist in the Northeast, John Hare, said the disputed model would, in fact, be subjected to peer review. But not until late this year at the earliest.
And Hare says there are no plans to delay the rulemaking, which will include the assumption that 50 percent of the risk comes from the United States and thus will require wholesale rope removal by Maine lobstermen.
"Understanding that there's a lot of agita about the assignment of the 50-50. So I think right now in terms of the initial rulemaking that's not going to be revisited," Hare says.
The federal rulemaking process is scheduled to start in September. Meanwhile, state officials and lobstermen are working to design and propose a compliance methodology that makes sense for the diverse lobster fleet, while minimizing safety risks and economic harm.
The U.S. House is expected to vote on Golden's amendment and the appropriations bill it would attach to by the end of this week.
Headline updated 5:21 p.m. June 19, 2019