Inside Augusta

Governor Mills defies ‘foolish, unsupported and ill-advised’ regulations on Maine lobster industry

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In a fiery letter sent Thursday, July 11, Governor Janet Mills announced her opposition to new federal regulations that aim to protect the endangered right whale. The new regulations from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) come in response to the recent deaths of six right whales. Gov. Mills in her letter to the lobster industry said she would not comply with the new regulation, claiming that there was a “disturbing lack of evidence” to support NOAA’s new rules.

The right whale is an endangered species that is native to the North Atlantic. Currently, biologists estimate that there are only 400 right whales left in the wild. Unfortunately, over the last few years there has been an increase in the number of right whale deaths, with 17 dying in 2017 and six more dying this year. Recent research has shown that 51 percent of right whale deaths within the last 15 years were the result of vessel strikes and 37 percent were the result of entanglement in fishing gear. In response to these findings, NOAA has asked the state of Maine to design a plan to reduce the number of buoy lines by 50 percent. 

Maine has three approaches it can take if it wishes to comply with NOAA regulations to reduce the number of buoy lines in the water. Those three options are fishing with fewer traps, putting more traps on each buoy line, or shutting down the in-shore fishery for a couple of months during the winter. Regardless of which approach is taken, any of these options would significantly impact Maine’s lobster industry. 

Closing the in-shore fishery for any amount of time would be reduce the number of days our in-shore lobstermen could harvest lobster. Obviously, reducing the time that a fisherman is allowed to work would have a detrimental impact on their business and bottom line.

Reducing the number of traps that can be used would force Maine’s high-volume lobstermen to fish with less traps than they normally would, reducing the amount of lobster they can harvest. Additionally, lobstermen say that increasing the number of traps on one buoy  line is dangerous for those who operate smaller vessels.

So, Maine’s compliance with the new federal regulations (regardless of which approach we take) would force us to choose who should be most negatively impacted by the regulatory burden: in-shore lobstermen, high-volume lobstermen or lobstermen who operate smaller vessels.

Since complying with NOAA’s new regulations would negatively impact our lobstermen, it would also negatively impact our lobster industry and thus our economy. Currently, Maine’s lobster industry is one of the largest industries in the state. Last year the lobster industry brought in 119.6 million pounds of lobster valued at $485 million. These figures would likely see a sharp decline if the state were to comply with the new federal regulations.

Calling NOAA’s new rules “foolish, unsupported and ill-advised,” Gov. Mills announced that she directed the Commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, Pat Keliher, to create a new risk reduction target. When Keliher was asked about creating the new risk reduction target, he said that the Department of Marine Resources is “going to put together a plan based on the risk as we see it, not as they see it.” In her letter, Gov. Mills said that Keliher will report back to the lobster industry in August with a new risk reduction plan.

It is nice to see that Gov. Mills is willing to defend our lobster industry from burdensome federal regulations that would hurt Maine’s economy. I hope the governor will continue to defend Mainers from undue regulation in the future, though for now I’m not holding my breath.

About William Rolfe

William Rolfe is a United States Air Force veteran and an intern at The Maine Heritage Policy Center. After being honorably discharged from the United States Air Force, he attended Central Maine Community College where he graduated with an associates degree in general studies. He currently attends the University of New Hampshire where he majors in social work, and hopes to one day attend law school so that he can advocate for fellow veterans.

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