If you’ve ever been to the state of Oregon – home of the “other” Portland – you only need to drive south of the big city to see the human impact of overzealous conservationism. This is the habitat of the Spotted Owl, whose inclusion to the endangered species list in 1990 shut down the timber industry there, eliminating 32,000 jobs in the process. Something eerily similar is about to happen to iconic Maine lobstermen in an effort to save the Right Whale.
In Maine, we are more attuned to the importance of living in balance with nature than most because it is one of our greatest resources. But another one of our tremendous resources is our people and – as the state flag emblemizes – those who earn their livings from sustainably harvesting the land and the sea.
With fewer than 350 Right Whales alive today, they are endangered to be sure. The stringent regulations being forced on Maine lobstermen today in the name of protecting the whale, however, now threaten to make 4,500 Maine commercial lobster fishermen extinct without doing much to help the whales.
At issue is the gear for lobster traps, and in particular the line that connects them from the bottom of the ocean floor to the buoys that float in coastal waters. A film sponsored by out-of-state environmental extremists called “Entangled” argues that these lines ensnare the whales, threatening their survival. The problem with the film, and the claim, is that the last recorded entanglement of a whale in Maine occurred over 17 years ago.
In the interim, lobstermen have been working closely with federal and state agencies to continue minimizing the risk of whales getting caught up in their gear. These efforts have included total overhauls of their gear. But the rules keep changing, as do the demands of those more radical environmentalists who now seek the shutdown of the lobster industry. It is almost as if our lobstermen are being punished for their diligent and effective compliance with ever more stringent requirements.
Various lawsuits brought by environmental groups have forced the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to shorten the timeline for attaining 98% risk mitigation in an impossibly short window. In practical terms, this legal track, at its current trajectory, will shut down the fishery altogether.
The great tragedy of this scenario is that, even if the radical environmental groups succeed in shuttering Maine’s lobster fishery as they are on track to do, the deaths of Right Whales will continue because they are being predominantly caused not by ours, but by Canada’s, fishing fleets, which enjoy looser rules.
Beyond the impatience of one-size-fits all environmental activists, there exist serious questions about the science underlying most of the arguments in court, as well as the fairness of various compromises and concessions made along the way. Shouldn’t the government, activists and industry agree on commonly accepted scientific findings before taking irreversible actions? Based on my conversations with lobstermen up and down the coast, there are three aspects to this problem.
First, there is debate about how many whales actually spend significant time in Maine fishing waters. Given the mammals’ migratory patterns, the waters off of Massachusetts, where lobster fishing has effectively been shut down, are important gathering places for the whales which then, depending on the season, travel to or from the Canadian Maritimes.
The tiny crustaceans called copepods on which the whales feed are present further out beyond Maine fishing waters, due to rising water temperatures. In fact, questions about the underlying scientific assumptions driving this mad dash to 98% risk reduction are so faulty that a federal judge delayed an enforcement deadline last year. It is safe to say that the science is not settled.
Next, there is the question of culpability for the entanglements and whale deaths that do occur. Remember, Maine has had zero deaths for more than a generation. Yet under a strange coupling agreement with Canada, we are somehow forced to share responsibility for the whale incidents in their waters. Most whale deaths are caused by ship strikes, not gear entanglements. When there are entanglements, they are caused by Canadian gear, which is markedly different than our own.
Finally, there is the troubling rise of the administrative state to such an extent that our own congressional delegation has – so far – proven unable to effectively push back against regulations and timelines imposed by the agencies under pressure from deep-pocketed environmental lobbies. Congress passed the federal laws driving all of this. Why can’t, or why won’t, Congress amend these laws to account for our situation?
Here we run into the political reality of Washington today, where the governing party is under constant pressure from its progressive wing to comply with its demands faster, and without compromise. It is worth listening to the recordings of the public hearings agencies held for stakeholders to comment on this issue. If you take the time, you will hear local lobstermen from Kittery to Machias sharing their multi-generational experience on these waters while youthful, mid-level environmental group staffers simply read talking points.
The result is a perfect storm that will wipe out Maine’s signature industry unfairly and without any real regard for who we are. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Oregon’s Spotted Owl – for whom the state’s timber industry was shut down, leading to massive economic suffering for tens of thousands of humans – now faces a new threat: the Barred Owl.
What are the regulators going to do about that?