At the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, divers work inside the Kelp Forest exhibit tank.

Divers Dan Crask, left, and Alice Bourget work in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Kelp Forest exhibit tank. Photo by Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group

Lobstermen and their supporters in Congress have been trying to fend off a series of challenges facing Maine’s iconic industry and say they won’t be deterred from confronting the latest attack – even if it’s not completely clear who’s behind the effort.

Consider the case of Seafood Watch, a California program that for over 20 years has been grading the environmental sustainability of various types of seafood and recommending which kinds to buy – and to avoid. Last month, Seafood Watch put lobster on its “red list” of seafood to avoid because of risks lobstering gear may pose to the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered species with fewer than 350 individuals.

Maine lobstermen and politicians practically lined up to criticize the red-listing. And they were out in force on Wednesday in Portland, where federal regulators were gathering feedback on new gear requirements, a seasonal fishing ban and other measures being implemented to protect the whales.

Also on Wednesday, Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, said he will introduce legislation to bar the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Seafood Watch’s parent organization, from receiving federal funds. The addition of lobster to the red list isn’t backed up by science, Golden said.

He said the organization has received nearly $200 million in federal grants, contracts and other money over the past two decades. Data provided by his office showed that the Monterey Bay Aquarium did indeed receive $5 million in federal funding. Another $191 million went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Golden was backed in his effort by the rest of the state’s congressional delegation and Gov. Janet Mills.


But the research institute has tried to distance itself from Seafood Watch, pointing out that the program, run by the aquarium, is separate from the institute. Supporters say the legislation is mistargeted. The institute and the aquarium have separate governance, funding and operations. The two organizations are located 20 miles apart on the California coast.

Despite the distinctions, there are also ties. Both the California aquarium and the research institute call themselves “partners” in their scientific and marketing literature. They collaborate frequently on joint research and education. The organizations share a common history, tracing their roots in the 1980s to gifts from David Packard, the co-founder of technology giant Hewlett-Packard.

Both are highly respected nonprofits. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute derived $13.2 million – about 20 percent of its revenue – from federal sources last year, according to its financial report. The aquarium itself receives a fraction of that in government funding; in 2020 the amount was $144,000. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the research institute bears the brunt of the pending legislation.


Golden’s office said Thursday that the exact relationships don’t matter. He will still try to cut federal funding connected to Seafood Watch.

“Seafood Watch is a program run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium – full stop,” a statement from Golden’s office said.


“The aquarium touts its management of the program and provides support to Seafood Watch through its research capacity and donor base,” the statement said. “So long as Seafood Watch maintains its baseless campaign against Maine lobstermen, the congressman cannot justify a single taxpayer dollar going to support its parent organization.”

On Wednesday night, the crowd of 200 at the University of Southern Maine in Portland largely supported that stand.

A leopard shark swims past as Alice Bourget, a volunteer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, cleans part of the Kelp Forest exhibit tank at the aquarium in Monterey, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. Bay Area News Group

Lobstermen pointed out that no right whale has gotten entangled in a Maine lobstermen’s gear for 18 years and there are no recorded cases of the gear leading to the death of a right whale. Furthermore, they say, warming water is leading right whales to bypass lobstering areas in the Gulf of Maine in search of food. Lobstermen who spoke at the hearing said they’ve never even seen a right whale when they’ve gone to tend their traps.

Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who is running against Golden in a bid to regain the 2nd-District seat, also said that if he’s elected, he’ll try to cut funding for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for coming up with the new lobstering regulations. Sen. Angus King, an independent, called on the fisheries service to hold more public hearings, including some closer to lobstering centers on the midcoast and Down East, but there’s no indication the agency will extend its period for taking comments beyond Tuesday.

On Wednesday, lobstermen and their supporters are planning a rally on the Portland waterfront the day after the comment period ends. But there’s little indication of what, if anything, that can be done to derail the woes the industry faces.

And there’s more news, likely bad news, to come. The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium is expected to release its next estimate of the whale’s population at the end of the month. The number has been falling every year since 2010 and there’s no indication that trend is likely to be reversed.

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