Maine’s congressional delegation has asked President Biden to protect the lobster industry as federal agencies weigh a series of proposed rules that they say “would be a death knell” for the state’s most valuable fishery.

The four delegation members called on Biden to fulfill his campaign promise to “protect the livelihood and safety of the fishing community.”

“Maine’s lobstermen are seeking your assurance that they can continue to provide for their families, that their communities will survive, and that their children will be able to continue Maine’s long-standing lobstering heritage. We urge you to recognize the impact these proposed conservation measures will have on our lobstermen, fishermen, and the entire seafood industry in the state of Maine,” Sen. Angus King, Sen. Susan Collins, Rep. Chellie Pingree and Rep. Jared Golden wrote in the letter, which was sent Wednesday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a series of proposed amendments to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan in an effort to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. 

The proposals aim to reduce risk to the whales by at least 60 percent and to reduce the number of vertical lines that attach buoys to lobster traps. The proposals include introducing weak insertions or weak rope into buoy lines to reduce the risk of entangling whales and adding additional seasonal restricted areas that are closed to buoy lines but allow ropeless fishing, among others. The plan does not include measures to help prevent ship strikes or reduce mortality and serious injuries in Canadian waters, which account for the majority of right whale deaths. 

At the same time, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a draft biological opinion, a requirement under the Endangered Species Act. 

This document becomes the basis of rule-making surrounding the specific species, in this case, the North Atlantic Right Whale. 

While NOAA’s proposed rule has a reduction target of at least 60 percent, the biological opinion aims to increase that to 98 percent within the next 10 years – a potential lifesaver for the whales and death sentence for Maine’s lobster fishery, according to the delegation. 

“If implemented, these efforts may ultimately shut down Maine’s lobster fishery by 2030,” the delegation wrote. “It would require lobstermen and women to make significant changes to how they harvest the resource, including the use of ‘ropeless’ fishing gear when it is not technologically or economically viable. Given what we know – and what the data clearly demonstrates – about the low risk of Maine’s lobster fishery relative to other activities, we oppose a proposal that has the potential to destroy thousands of livelihoods, hundreds of coastal communities, and the economic backbone of our state.”

The letter follows two nights of lengthy public comment from concerned lobstermen and environmentalists, both of whom argued that the proposed rule won’t adequately protect whales.

Accounting for about 82 percent of the country’s lobster market, Maine’s lobster fishery is the nation’s largest. But fishermen here say they’re not seeing the whales in Maine waters, despite bearing the brunt of the burden in the proposed plan. 

Since 2017, 33 right whales have been killed, according to NOAA. Of those, 21 were in Canada and 12 were in the U.S. 

Ten incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including two in U.S. waters, but none can be linked to the Maine lobster industry. 

“With the potential closure of the lobster and other fisheries at stake, we write to focus your attention on the outcomes to avoid in the final stages of this regulatory process and to encourage your administration’s urgent action to address the significant threats to right whales in Canadian waters, as well as from vessel-strikes in both Canada and the United States,” the delegation wrote in its letter to Biden.

Maine’s $485 million lobster fishery supports approximately 4,500 lobstermen and their families, as well as thousands of others employed by lobster dealers, seafood processors, vessel and trap manufacturers, restaurants and other businesses. The industry generates roughly $1.4 billion for the state each year.

Both Gov. Janet Mills and Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, have also expressed their concerns surrounding the draft biological opinion. 

According to a letter to the fisheries service from Keliher, the document’s target reduction of 98 percent “will be devastating to the viability of Maine’s fixed gear fisheries.” 

According to Keliher, the only way to achieve such a figure would require the state to “completely reinvent the fishery and convert largely to ropeless fishing,” an “untenable solution” as the technology is still under development and is expensive, with an estimated cost of over half a billion dollars to convert the entire fleet. 

In a letter on Monday, Mills expressed similar “grave concerns.”

“The survival of Maine’s iconic lobster fishery, and in fact, our heritage, through the future of Maine’s independent lobstermen and women, depend on your willingness to act,” Mills wrote in a letter filed with NOAA on Feb. 19.

“In the absence of a significant change, this framework will necessitate the complete reinvention of the Maine lobster fishery,” Mills said in a news release. “If this comes to pass, it is not only fishermen and their crews who will be impacted, gear suppliers, trap builders, rope manufacturers – all these businesses face a deeply uncertain future.”

The department has not yet filed its official comments on the proposed amendments to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. Comments are due March 1. 

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