Rep. Jared Golden wants to withhold federal funding for the implementation of lobster fishing rules intended to protect the endangered right whale, claiming the government is basing the regulations on an untested scientific tool.

Maine’s 2nd District congressman, a Democrat, introduced an amendment to a pending appropriations bill that would effectively block controversial right whale regulations requiring Maine’s $485 million a year industry to cut the number of buoy lines in the Gulf of Maine by 50 percent to prevent fatal fishing gear entanglements.

“The federal government is asking Maine lobstermen to make huge sacrifices without clear evidence that those sacrifices will have any positive impact on right whales,” Golden wrote in a statement Wednesday. “I’ve joined lobstermen to voice our concerns and now it’s time for action.

Golden said it is important to help the right whale, but he joined the Maine lobster industry and Maine’s fishing managers in a common refrain: the federal government has no conclusive proof that right whales are getting hurt or killed by entanglement in Maine lobster gear.

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden

Instead, Golden and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, a co-sponsor of Golden’s amendment, question NOAA’s decision to use a data tool that has not been subjected to the review of independent, third-party scientists to quantify the estimated risk to right whales.

“NOAA needs to use sound science and reliable data to make its policies, and that can’t happen without peer review,” Golden said. “My amendment blocks the use of NOAA’s data tool – and the resulting regulations – until the data tool is subjected to peer review.”


Golden first raised his concerns about the risk reduction tool in April.

NOAA did not respond to questions about the Golden amendment or why it is using this particular tool to guide Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire to reducing the serious or fatal entanglement risk for right whales by 60 percent.

But in an April conference call, Northeast Fisheries Science Center Director Jon Hare told regulators, whale advocates and scientists that decision making in the face of uncertainty is a common challenge, and that uncertainty does not exempt it from action. Hare called the risk reduction model, which was developed to help the U.S. Navy avoid marine mammal deaths, the best available science.

Environmental groups dedicated to protecting the right whale echo Hare’s conclusion, saying the federal laws that protect marine mammals and endangered species require scientists to rely on the best available science when forming policy, not perfect and complete science, if such a thing even exists.

Golden’s office estimates it would take NOAA about a year to subject the risk model to a peer review. But environmental groups claim the struggling right whale is just 20 years from becoming “functionally extinct” and regulators can’t afford to wait before taking action.

Scientists estimate only 411 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when its population bottomed out at 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but low calving rates, ship strikes and fishing line entanglements have sent its numbers tumbling, yet again.


“If we wait until we have scientific certainty, we’ll be looking at this species in the rear view mirror saying, ‘Yep, it’s definitely extinct,'” said Jane Davenport, an attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, whose organization is taking NOAA to court to enforce federal laws protecting marine mammals and endangered species.

The state Department of Marine Resources argues the modeling tool, which was originally developed by Duke University researchers, is flawed because areas with a lot of fishing gear and few whales are labeled high risk, like the Gulf of Maine, but areas with a lot of whales and less fishing gear are deemed low risk.

DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher claims NOAA forced the tool on a group of New England lobstermen, whale advocates, scientists and regulators tasked with protecting the right whale on short notice. He says the tool is based on outdated habitat information from the mid-Atlantic region, not the Gulf of Maine, and doesn’t even consider the risk posed by Canada, which is a new and deadly hotspot for right whales.

“Our state has a huge lobster industry that has already done a lot on their own,” Pingree said. “We need federal protections to ensure fisheries in other states and countries are making an equal effort and that it doesn’t fall to Maine to shoulder the entire responsibility to this important issue.”

On Wednesday, Keliher thanked Golden and Pingree for their support, saying he shares their concerns.

“The department has also urged NOAA to move forward with a peer review,” Keliher said. “This is the case with all fisheries management decisions – peer reviewed science is the cornerstone of the decision making process.”


A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod Bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., in March 2018. Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

But Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental groups involved in the federal right whale protection group argue that Maine agreed to the 50 percent reduction in buoy lines back in April. They consider the Golden amendment an insult to NOAA’s attempts to involve all stakeholders in its management process.

“Rep. Golden’s amendment is effectively an end run around a congressionally-mandated stakeholder driven process for recovering a critically endangered species,” reads an open letter to Congress signed by 46 environmental groups, ranging from the Animal Welfare Institute to the World Wildlife Fund.

Environmentalists were especially concerned that this effort was being led by Democrats. In the past, Republicans have withheld funding to prevent federal agencies from enforcing marine mammal or endangered species laws, but Davenport said this is the first time a Democrat has done so.

Lobstermen argue drastic cuts in buoy lines, possible trap reductions, higher trawl counts and seasonal closures could put them, and the state’s signature industry, in danger, forcing Maine to choose which kind of lobsterman will survive – small inshore operators or high-volume, deep water fishermen.

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