ELLSWORTH — A draft federal biological opinion on the impact of fisheries on endangered North Atlantic right whales would “necessitate the complete reinvention of the Maine lobster fishery,” Governor Janet Mills wrote in a forceful Feb. 19 letter to NOAA Fisheries, citing “grave concern” and “inequities.”
The draft biological opinion includes a conservation framework that calls for a 98 percent reduction in risk to whales from U.S. federal fixed gear fisheries, including lobster fishing, over the next decade.
“The survival of Maine’s iconic lobster fishery, and in fact, our heritage, through the future of Maine’s independent lobstermen and women, depend on your willingness to act,” Mills wrote to Michael Pentony, NOAA Fisheries regional administrator. The letter was included with the state Department of Marine Resources’ comments on the draft opinion.
In his comment letter, DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher wrote that his agency is “deeply concerned” that while several human causes of whale mortality are cited, “the draft Bi-Op places the overwhelming majority of the burden to reduce mortality/serious injury on U.S. fisheries, and specifically the U.S. trap/pot fishery.”
“To say this reduction will be devastating to the viability of Maine’s fixed gear fisheries is an understatement,” Keliher wrote. “More distressing is that the draft Bi-Op finds even when risk in U.S. federal fisheries is reduced to zero, the [North Atlantic right whale] population continue to be impacted by Canadian mortalities and vessel strikes. This underscores that U.S. fisheries should not, and cannot, be the sole source of reductions.”
“There is no business model to sustain Maine’s diverse lobster fleet under a 98 percent risk reduction,” the Maine Lobstermen’s Association states on its website.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is facing a May 31 court-ordered deadline to come up with a new biological opinion and lobster fishing regulations to protect whales from entanglement.
In April 2020, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg ruled that NMFS violated the federal Endangered Species Act in 2014 when it adopted new rules governing the lobster fishery. The rules failed to adequately consider the risk right whales might face if they become entangled in the vertical lines that connect lobster traps on the sea floor to marker buoys on the surface, according to the ruling.
The judge vacated the NMFS biological opinion required by the Endangered Species Act, which allowed continuation of the lobster fishery as it is currently practiced. On Aug. 19, 2020, Boasberg gave NMFS nine months to create new regulations.
Mills in her letter highlighted the Maine lobster industry’s long history of conservation efforts and the fishery’s importance to the state’s economy. “The roughly half billion dollars generated in ex-vessel revenue from the fishery generates an additional $1 billion in indirect economic impact throughout the supply chain.”
“It is hard for my administration and the industry to imagine how these targets could not be achieved without a conversion to ropeless fishing — a still highly untested technology which raises more questions than answers,” Mills wrote. She said the livelihoods of fishermen, gear suppliers, trap builders and rope manufacturers would be threatened.
Keliher urged federal regulators to direct their efforts farther north.
“It is imperative that NMFS use every tool at its disposal to encourage additional protections for right whales in Canada as future mortality outside of U.S. waters will directly impact the survival of U.S. fisheries,” he wrote.