Enforcement of the new lobster gear regulations aimed at protecting the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale will be delayed because supply chain issues have made it too difficult for lobstermen to comply.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Wednesday that it will use a “graduated enforcement effort” from when the rules take effect on May 1 until the supply issues have been resolved.

A right whale raises its head out of the water in the Bay of Fundy. Photo by Moira Brown/Courtesy of the New England Aquarium

The regulations require lobstermen to splice NOAA-approved weak rope or weak plastic links into the lines they use to connect buoys to traps on the ocean floor. But the approved gear has been in short supply as manufacturers struggle to produce enough to outfit the Northeast lobster and Jonah crab fishing fleets. The regulations are intended to prevent whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear, which can result in injuries and death. There are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales, according to NOAA.

The delay in enforcement drew criticism from environmental groups that are pushing the federal government to do more to protect North Atlantic right whales, as well as the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and Maine’s congressional delegation – both of which have opposed the new regulations as well as the May 1 deadline. 

“MLA is relieved that NOAA has finally listened to lobstermen, the state, and our congressional delegation, that despite lobstermen’s best efforts, lobstermen are unable to meet the deadline,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “Some have complied and had products recalled, others have complied and had devices fail, and many more have not been able to secure the materials they need.”

Indeed, Dustin Delano, vice president of the association, had said last week that the plastic weak links he’d ordered had been recalled, and he was still on a waitlist for replacements.

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“The fact remains that the 10-year whale plan is based on flawed science and will not help protect the right whale,” McCarron continued. “That is why we are suing to force the government to come up with a valid plan that will protect the whales and the future of Maine’s lobster fishery.”

Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Gov. Janet Mills all have been pushing the Biden administration for a two-month delay to meet the new rules, arguing in a joint letter in March to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo that given the supply chain problems, Maine lobstermen were trapped in an “impossible scenario.” Previously, they had asked Raimondo to rescind the regulations.

Mills and the Maine delegation issued a joint statement Wednesday criticizing NOAA’s decision to delay enforcement rather than the rule itself: “This is an urgent problem, and we will continue pushing to provide Maine’s lobster industry with as much support and flexibility as possible in complying with this unfair and onerous rule. A better and fairer solution would be for NOAA to delay the deadline to July 1 as we have repeatedly called for.”

Environmental groups, however, have argued that the regulations do not go far enough to protect right whales. The Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups are suing the federal government on that account. The Center for Biological Diversity did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

However, Oceana, which filed a motion supporting the suit, expressed disappointment in NOAA decision.

“Oceana is disappointed that NOAA continues to take insufficient action to address the needs of these critically endangered whales. Further delays will inevitably lead to more risk for this species,” Oceana Campaign Director Gib Brogan said in an email. “Oceana encourages NOAA to do everything in its power to provide needed protection for North Atlantic right whales across their range in U.S. waters.”

NOAA said it will focus its enforcement effort on compliance assistance rather than civil penalties until the supply chain issues are resolved.

“I want to assure fishermen who are making good-faith efforts to comply with these new measures but are not able to procure compliant gear that we understand the difficulty of their situation,” Greater Atlantic Regional Administrator Michael Pentony wrote in announcing the change. “At the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, we are committed to continuing to message urgency to rope and weak link producers and to monitor the supply challenges closely.”


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