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Policy & Politics

Latest Federal Spending Bill Gives A Christmas Gift To Maine Lobster Industry

The lobster industry in Maine got a present from Congress in the latest funding bill that Congress is expected to pass this week.

The new federal spending bill includes a Christmas gift to the lobster industry in Maine. In September, a federal court ruled in favor of environmental groups who argued that lobstering posed a threat to right whales off the coast of Maine. “This decision rejects the lobster industry’s attempts to distract from the overwhelming scientific evidence that entanglements have killed far too many right whales for far too long,” said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at Conservation Law Foundation in a press release. “It took the Fisheries Service five years to finalize a rule that only reduced lethal entanglement risk by 50% when the science shows 90% is needed. This species doesn’t have another five years to wait for the agency to comply with the law.”

There is an old expression that says, “Politics is like sausage. You don’t want to see how it’s made.” Every year, as part of the budget-making process, Congress comes up with an enormous spending bill to fund the government for another year. In order to muster enough votes, hundreds if not thousands of add-ons are included that have nothing to do with the federal budget. They get added in order to induce members of Congress to vote for the spending package. Politicians call these add-ons “ornaments.” By the time the process is done, the bill becomes known as a Christmas tree because of all the ornaments that get added in order to secure its passage.

Buried in the 4155 pages of the new budget bill is a provision that appears to give the lobster industry back what the federal court took away. According to Maine Public Radio, the state’s lobster fishery will have much longer to comply with federal rules aimed at reducing the risks to the endangered North Atlantic right whale population. The amendment would give the National Marine Fisheries Service until 2028 to issue new rules aimed at reducing right whale injuries and deaths from entanglements in lobster gear.

In a joint statement, all four of Maine’s federal lawmakers and Governor Janet Mills called the amendment a “simple compromise” to protect lobster industry livelihoods. “We have always said that we will pursue any and all policy solutions to protect our hardworking lobstermen and women along Maine’s coast,” they wrote.

But conservation groups are sharply critical of the new provision. Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity says a six-year timeline will set the endangered right whale population on an “irreversible” path toward extinction. There are fewer than 350 right whales remaining, and environmentalists say there are just 70 breeding females. “Is there a chance that we can save the right whale still in 2028? Yeah, sure. It maybe was a 50-50 proposition before. Now it’s like 95-5 against,” Hartl said.

It seems an odd coincidence that protections for the the right whale population should be taken away less than a week after the COP 15 biodiversity conference in Montreal came to a conclusion. There, all the talk was about protecting wild species from loss of habitat due to human activity. Apparently, the Maine congressional delegation somehow didn’t get the memo.

Lobster Industry Denies There Is A Problem

In a statement, the Maine Lobstermen Association dismissed the idea that the industry could play a role in the potential extinction of right whales and said it was encouraged by the new congressional proposal. [It should be happy after all the money it “donated” to the congressional delegation paid off so handsomely.]

“Congress is providing time to allow the lobster fishery to continue to operate while a new, lawful plan — based on realistic assumptions and the best scientific and commercial information — is developed without decimating this critical industry and the coastal and island communities that depend upon it,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the organization.

Maine House Republican Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham (we swear we are not making this up!) said that while he’s pleased with the new proposal, he’s not sure even six years will be enough time to produce new right whale protections that satisfy both federal officials and the Maine lobster industry. He believes that at the end of the next six years, the Maine fishery will successfully prove that there’s no need for additional risk reductions at all.

“Very rarely do we have any interaction with [right whales]. There hasn’t been any known entanglements since 2004. There’s never been a known right whale death. We just don’t really think that lines up with the science they’re using that says we have to reduce 98% of our risk.”

Conservationists Disagree

Conservationists say it’s difficult to identify the exact cause of an entanglement or which fishery is responsible because the whales drown and are difficult to recover. That is why they have pushed for stronger whale protection. They agreed with the federal court ruling last month that gave the lobster fishery two years to develop new regulations.

“It is highly unlikely for Congress to come in and try to undo a court order, and I think there’s a separation of powers argument to be made that it’s not appropriate,” said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, one of several environmental groups that pushed for stronger protections for right whales in court. It’s too early to say whether those groups will pursue any additional of legal action, Fuller said. “Today we’re focused on being extremely disappointed in the rider and in the Democrats that voted for it.”

Beyond setting a new six-year timeline for additional regulations, the proposal also includes at least $40 million to research and implement new gear and fishing techniques. It deems that current federal rules on right whale protections are sufficient through 2028.

Hartl believes that could preclude any additional lawsuits aimed at protecting right whales from the impacts of the lobster fishery over the next six years. “The practical effect is that the harm to right whales must be addressed in other ways, which means even more aggressive restrictions on vessel speeds and the possibility of ship strikes and much more intensive restrictions on potential offshore wind,” he said.

Fuller said the proposal also received little to no public feedback, but she’s resigned to the fact that the amendment is part of what’s considered must-pass legislation. “There’s not likely to be calls to shut down the federal government over right whales,” Fuller said. “I don’t see any Hail Marys coming through at this time.”

Congress is expected to pass the spending package before federal lawmakers leave for the holidays at the end of this week. Democrats are frantic to wrap up their legislative agenda before the new Congress convenes on January 3.

The Takeaway

The two sides are so far apart on this subject that it’s hard to believe they occupy the same planet. The lobster industry says it has not caused the death of a right whale in almost 20 years. The conservationists say that if nothing is done, the whales will be nearly extinct by 2028. How does one bridge such a divide? It’s like trying to moderate a conversation between Alex Jones and Sandy Hook survivors.

What the lobster industry seems to be less aware of is that it may become extinct as warmer waters and a slowing Gulf Stream radically disrupt the lobster population. There is a tendency among humans to think the natural world will stay the same in perpetuity. That’s the same delusion that has kept people from taking appropriate steps to address the Colorado River water crisis.

Around CleanTechnica’s posh executive offices, we tend to favor protecting the right whales. After all, they got that name because they were the species whalers prized the most in the heyday of the whaling industry when they were decimated to supply the needs of humans hungry for the finer things in life. We really ought to leave them alone to thrive once more.

Featured photo credit: NOAA (FPWC: Full permission to use anytime with credit)

 
 
 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?

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