Maine’s congressional delegation is continuing to push for relief for the Maine lobster industry at the federal level, as regulators got an earful from lobster fishermen at a hearing Wednesday in Portland.

“The men and women who make up Maine's iconic lobster fishery are facing a terrible crisis, a crisis not of their making, a crisis that is due to this administration's onerous regulations,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told officials at the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall.  “I could not believe tonight when I saw the presentation saying that this plan is ‘based on a solid scientific foundation.’  That is simply not the case.”

Fishermen and all four of Maine’s congressional representatives have repeatedly asked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to relax or rescind new regulations taking effect this year that require Maine lobster fishermen to make drastic changes to their gear, including adding break points to their lines. 

The new rules will also declare a 950-square-mile area off-limits to lobster fishing between October and January. Regulators have said the new changes are necessary to protect a dwindling population of Atlantic right whales from becoming entangled in lobster fishing gear.

But Collins noted Wednesday that there have been no documented accounts of right whale entanglements in Maine lobster fishing gear since 2004, and no reported fatalities of right whales due to entanglements in the waters off Maine’s coast.

“Despite this overwhelming evidence, NOAA has continually refused to follow the science,” Senator Collins told officials.  “Instead, it relentlessly targets the Maine lobster industry, and that is simply unfair.”

Collins implored NOAA to work with Canadian officials to regulate Canadian fishing gear and focus on preventing ship strikes, which Collins said have killed right whales in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In a written statement presented by an aid, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) echoed Collins’ testimony, adding that Maine lobster fishermen have already switched to working with thinner lines, and have removed enough unnecessary lines from the ocean to cover 30,000 miles. King also echoed Collins’ plea for federal regulators to work with their Canadian counterparts to address the problem.

“The majority of right whale deaths since 2017 has been due to vessel strikes in Canada, and of the 33 right whale mortalities occurring between 2017 and 2020, 24 of those whales were confirmed to be attributed to entanglements in Canadian fishing gear and vessel strikes in Canadian waters,” King wrote.

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) echoed King’s and Collins’s sentiments, saying, “I will continue working with the delegation to extend the scoping period, including potential federal legislation that will support lobstermen harmed by these unscientific regulations.”

Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) announced in advance of yesterday’s hearing that he wrote to President Joe Biden asking for him to intervene. In a statement, Golden noted that Biden made a pledge in 2020 while running for president to protect the livelihoods of fishing communities.

“Given what we know — and what the data clearly demonstrates — about the low risk of Maine’s lobster fishery relative to other activities in right whale habitat, I cannot comprehend how you can stand idly by and not oppose in the strongest terms a proposal that has the potential to destroy thousands of livelihoods, hundreds of coastal communities, and the economic backbone of our state and the New England region,” Golden wrote. 

Golden is running for re-election to the second congressional district seat. His opponent, Bruce Poliquin, also issued a statement supporting Maine lobster fishermen, declaring that if elected, he would move to cut NOAA funding.

“Maine’s lobstermen just want to be able to work,” Poliquin said. “They have protected the Gulf of Maine for centuries because their livelihoods depend on it.”

NOAA Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Team Branch Chief Colleen Coogan on Thursday defended the current regulations, saying they are based on the best available science.

The number of right whales observed has been decreasing by about 30 every year from 2015-2019, Coogan said. That's roughly three times the number of deaths confirmed during those same years, suggesting a large number of whales are dying for reasons unknown.

“We don’t see those, and we don’t know for sure what killed them, but the incidents we’ve observed were entanglements and vessel strikes,” Coogan said.

Officials are considering more restrictions on lines and gear as a result, Coogan said, and are still looking for feedback from fishermen.

“We cannot write good regulations without input from fishermen,” Coogan said.