STONINGTON, Maine — Mainers who haul lobsters for a living do not kill right whales.
That was the message from a rally at Stonington’s commercial fishing pier on Sunday attended by more than 500 people, including Gov. Janet Mills, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, and U.S. Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree.
At issue are pending federal regulations aimed at protecting the endangered right whale, which can be killed by getting tangled in lobster trap-lines, but would force state lobstermen to cut the number of lines they can put into the water by 60 percent.
Rally speakers said that the rule would devastate the state’s lobster industry, which contributes an estimated $1 billion to Maine’s economy, while doing nothing to protect the whales, which, as a recent scientific study shows, seldom stray into the lobstering waters of the Gulf of Maine.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, no right whales have died from entanglement in Maine fishing lines in many years, as increasingly rising ocean temperatures have driven the whales and the food they eat into Canadian territory.
Mills and the congressional delegation, plus speakers representing former Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Angus King, told rally attendees that they would support the state’s approximately 4,500 lobstermen and continue to press President Donald Trump to oppose the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s proposed new regulation.
“We all want to protect the right whale,” Mills said Sunday. “We want to save the right whale, but we want to do it the right way, protecting the safety of Maine’s fishermen and the fishermen community, protecting the economy of coastal Maine and all of Maine.”
The number of right whales has dwindled to fewer than 420 during the past decade, but the proposal is “disproportionately and absurdly burdensome” to the state’s lobster industry, which has helped follow and craft NOAA regulations protecting fisheries for more than 20 years, Collins said.
“They will do nothing to help the right whale,” Collins said Sunday, adding, “there are no better conservationists than the lobstermen and women in Maine. It is now time for NOAA to listen to you.”
Maine’s congressional delegation wrote a letter to Trump on July 10 to list arguments against the NOAA’s proposed actions and suggest that Trump’s intervention would be in line with his regulatory philosophy, but it does not propose a specific remedy. LePage’s letter argued that the proposed rules unfairly burden Maine’s lobster industry.
Conservation groups that are suing for quicker federal action to protect the whales were outraged by the delegation’s letter. An attorney at the Maine chapter of the Conservation Law Foundation said it shows a disregard for the Endangered Species Act and the plight of the whales themselves.
The right whales are among the rarest marine mammals. Their populations were decimated during the whaling era generations ago, and today they face threats including entanglement in commercial fishing equipment, ship strikes and climate change.
The Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, which was created by the NOAA to reduce injuries and deaths that whales suffer due to entanglement, suggested eliminating 60 percent of the vertical lines Maine lobstermen put in the water to trap lobster.
The potential for new rules comes at a time of relative prosperity for the American lobster fishery. Lobstering in Maine was worth more than $480 million at the docks in 2018. That was the third-highest figure in history.
But the lobster industry is also facing challenges such as tariffs on Chinese exports and competition from Canada, which harvests the same species.
Watch: The Maine lobster industry