The Maine Legislature is threatening to fight the federal government in court over a set of controversial new seasonal restrictions on lobster harvesting in the Gulf of Maine. 

Legislators on Wednesday approved a joint order from Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, that would allow the Legislative Council to take legal action in support of Maine lobstermen affected by the regulations.

Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a new set of rules for New England’s lobster fishery aimed at reducing the risk to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and other whale species. 

The goal is to reduce the risk to the whales by at least 60 percent in 2022.

The new rules will require lobstermen to string more traps on a single rope and to use weaker ropes to allow entangled whales to break free, among other changes, and will put more than 950 square miles of the Gulf of Maine off limits to traditional lobstering from October through January – the area’s most lucrative season. 

Lobstermen say the new regulations will be expensive, dangerous, burdensome and impractical, and won’t reduce the risk to whales.

“The latest rules imposed by the federal government will do nothing to help the endangered species they were designed to protect while having damning consequences on hardworking Mainers and their families,” Jackson said in a statement. “… The Maine Legislature will not sit idly by while this iconic industry is under threat. We are ready to take legal action to right this wrong and support the hardworking men and women in the lobstering industry.”

SEASONAL RESTRICTIONS TO BEGIN

Most of the changes required by the rule will go into effect May 1, 2022, which is the start of the American lobster/Jonah crab fishing year, while the most immediate change to impose new, seasonally restricted areas off Maine and Massachusetts will go into effect Oct. 18.

According to federal officials, the closure will directly affect roughly 60 lobstermen who set traps in the restricted area and another 60 who might be affected by the others relocating. The vast majority of lobstermen fish closer to shore and will not be affected, the government said.

For the affected lobster harvesters, officials expect the closure will cost them 5 to 10 percent of their total revenue each year.

However, lobstermen who fish in the area say the estimates are grossly off the mark. They say revenue losses for those affected could be closer to 50 percent.

The plan does allow buoyless or “ropeless” fishing – a new and experimental technology that brings lobster traps to the surface using acoustic signals – but the technology has not been tested in Maine.

The joint order comes just two days after the Maine Lobstermen’s Association sued regulators to protect the fishery. The association has more than 1,200 members.

The Legislature’s joint order is not legal action in and of itself, but it does authorize the Legislative Council to take “such legal action as it determines appropriate and fiscally feasible,” including but not limited to joining any pending legal action as an intervenor, providing an amicus brief in any pending legal action or initiating new litigation.

The Lobstermen’s Association suit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., takes aim at a biological opinion published by the National Marine Fisheries Service in May. The fisheries service is named as a defendant along with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and fisheries service Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Janet Coit.

It argues that the restrictions are based on flawed science, pose an existential threat to Maine’s lobster industry and will not shield whales from extinction.

BIOLOGICAL OPINION UNDER ATTACK

If successful, the lawsuit would require the Marine Fisheries Service to reassess its biological opinion. The recently created rules would remain in place until new ones were developed with an updated review.

Another lawsuit filed Monday by the Maine Lobster Union, Fox Island Lobster Co. and Damon Family Lobster Co. aims to stop enforcement of the October-to-January seasonal closure.

Fisheries regulators created the seasonally restricted area in order to spread risk responsibility across multiple jurisdictions even though lobstering is far more important to Maine than to nearby states, the companies said in their legal complaint.

Moreover, right whale sightings in the area are extremely rare, and regulators did not evaluate the efficacy of existing regulations to prevent death and injury to whales, the complaint alleges.

The companies are seeking injunctive relief to pause the closure and get a final rule revision.

Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, a lobster boat captain, said in a statement that she fully supports taking “every possible action” to protect the lobster fishery from what she sees as unfair and arbitrary restrictions. 

“We should not be basing regulations on outdated science, especially when the livelihoods of so many people hang in the balance,” she said.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources, which opposes the federal restrictions, told legislators this month that it would not sue over the new rules, but would join the ongoing 2018 conservation case in order to assist in the effort against the plaintiffs.

On Monday, Gov. Janet Mills issued a statement saying Maine has been granted “intervenor” status in the case. An intervenor is neither a plaintiff nor a defendant but is recognized by the court as having an interest in the outcome of the lawsuit.

Only about 360 North Atlantic right whales remain, and the federal plan calls for a 98 percent risk reduction of serious injury and mortality in the coming decade.

Since 2017, 34 right whales have been killed, according to NOAA. An earlier estimate of 33 deaths attributed 21 to Canada and 12 to the United States.

Eleven incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including at least two in U.S. waters, but none that can be linked to the Maine lobster industry. The most recent known Maine entanglement occurred in 2004, but the whale survived.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.