Eric Pray unpacks a lobster on a Portland wharf in May 2020. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

Politicians and lobstermen told federal regulators that Maine’s premier seafood industry isn’t responsible for threats to the endangered right whale population in the Gulf of Maine.

The National Marine Fisheries Service held a three-hour hearing in Portland on Wednesday night on changes to regulations that the agency’s scientists say are needed to save the endangered species. But they were told that the changes will kill the lobster industry in Maine and also deal the state’s economy a crippling blow without materially helping the whales.

Lobsterman Sonny Beal, of Beals Island, said he’s never even seen a right whale on his fishing trips. Industry proponents said no right whale has gotten entangled in a Maine lobsterman’s gear for 18 years and no right whale death has ever been attributed to entanglement in a Maine lobsterman’s gear.

“What you are doing is absolutely ludicrous,” he said. “You’re going to ruin the economy.”

Roughly 200 people attended the hearing at the University of Southern Maine on the same day that Maine’s congressional delegation launched another salvo in an escalating war of words over the industry’s impact on right whale populations.

Maine’s congressional delegation said Wednesday that it will try to cut a California aquarium’s federal funding after its seafood sustainability project, Seafood Watch, put lobster on a “red list” of seafood for consumers to avoid because of threats to the whale population.


The delegation’s bill, which they said would be introduced next week, is intended to buttress an argument that the Seafood Watch list isn’t based on scientific evidence of a risk to whales by the industry, said Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District.

“Institutions like the Monterey Bay Aquarium that claim to be scientific but openly flout available evidence and data should not receive taxpayer funds. It’s that simple,” Golden said in a statement.

Wednesday night, a parade of politicians and lobstermen told federal regulators that they, too, aren’t looking at the science, which they said suggests that the greatest risk to the whales is from fishing gear and ship strikes in Canadian waters.

The proposed rules are “based on fear, not facts,” Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said. Lobstermen are “facing a crisis not of their making,” Republican Sen. Susan Collins said.

“NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has consistently refused to follow the science,” Collins said.

Other speakers focused on the economic harm that would be inflicted if the rules go into effect.


The regulations “would make it impossible to continue fishing” and devastate coastal communities, said Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, and Golden said fishermen are being harmed by class politics.

“You’ve got to know who your enemies are,” he said, and argued that the effort to impose restrictions are being funded by millionaires and billionaires.

“That’s who you are up against,” he said.

Golden said he has given $10,000 to a pair of lobstermen’s legal defense funds to continue to fight the regulations in court.

Former Gov. Paul LePage – a Republican who is running to return to the governor’s office – echoed some of Golden’s comments, saying that the push for more regulations “is being funded by environmental groups and wind people” who want to see offshore windmills on the Maine coast.

He said cargo and cruise ships are responsible for right whale deaths and the effort to impose more regulations on lobstermen “is about wiping us off the map.”


An aide to Sen. Angus King, an independent, read a statement that criticized the proposed regulations and called on federal regulators to hold more hearings closer to the fishermen, many of whom drove hours to attend the Portland hearing.

Lobstermen who spoke mostly focused on the threat the regulations pose to a way of life for thousands of families on the coast.

“Leave the Maine lobsterman alone,” Jack Thibodeau said.

Lobstering “is one of the last honest jobs you can have,” Katie Samuels said. And “it’s one of the most environmentally friendly fisheries there is, period.”

The effort to strip federal funding for the California aquarium was supported earlier Wednesday by Mills.

“Monterey Bay is jeopardizing the livelihoods of thousands of Maine people and a cornerstone of Maine’s economy with no good evidence,” she said.


Mills said the inclusion of the lobster industry on the list of seafood to avoid “completely ignored sound science and facts.” And, she said, the organization “has proven that they are not worthy of federal funding (and) there must be consequences for their recklessness and their disregard for an industry that is at the heart of our state and our country.”

In a statement of its own, Seafood Watch said it provides “science-based information to consumers and businesses so that they can make informed choices when purchasing seafood.”

The listing prompted some restaurants and other businesses to pull lobster from their menus.

Seafood Watch said its ratings “reflect a management failure” because regulators allow fisheries to use gear that does not keep those industries in compliance with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The project claimed the reaction of the delegation “distracts from the real issue: the urgent need for government to get those fisheries back in compliance.”

Golden and King are sponsoring the legislation to strip the aquarium’s federal funding, and said that Collins and Pingree would sign on to the measure. It will be formally introduced next week.

King and Golden said that the aquarium has received nearly $197 million in federal funding since 2001.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story