Mills, Maine delegation relieved by judge's decision to delay stricter lobstering rules

Nov. 20—Maine's governor and congressional delegation released a joint statement Sunday expressing relief that a judge has delayed for two years the implementation of lobster gear restrictions designed to protect endangered whales.

But they also emphasized that the action merely postpones the threat to Maine's lobster industry and reiterated that the new restrictions do nothing to meaningfully protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Environmentalists had sought to force federal regulators to issue new rules within six months to protect the whales from fishing gear entanglements, but the National Marine Fisheries service said it needs to postpone implementation until the end of 2024.

Gov. Janet Mills, Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree released the statement Sunday morning.

"Although a two-year delay is better than no delay at all, this decision fails to address the underlying issue: NOAA's regulations have created a crisis that threatens the livelihood of thousands of hardworking Mainers without meaningfully protecting right whales," they said.

"There has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear, yet NOAA has continually refused to follow the science, and has relentlessly targeted our lobster industry," the statement continues. "NOAA must use this pause to carefully review the data and propose an updated rule that reflects the reality in the Gulf of Maine."

The head of Maine's Department of Marine Resources said Saturday that he is also pleased about the two-year delay, saying that if the new rules were implemented immediately, they would have brought economic devastation and unintended consequences to the industry.

"I'm pleased that Judge (James) Boasberg acknowledged the need for additional time to develop a new rule," Commissioner Patrick Keliher said in a statement. "It's also good to see that he recognized how important it is for the (National Marine Fisheries Service) to carefully weigh evolving scientific data in this process."

The next two years will go fast, "so we will continue to work closely with Maine fishermen to develop a range of measures that ensure compliance with a changing regulatory landscape, and a resilient future for this important Maine industry," Keliher said.

Fishermen previously said they are also encouraged by the delay.

Republican Rep. William "Billy Bob" Faulkingham, a Winter Harbor fisherman and the new House minority leader, said Friday that the U.S. District Court judge's ruling was good news for Maine lobstermen in the wake of several recent legal and public relations setbacks.

"We're not out of the woods yet," Faulkingham told the Press Herald. But the judge's ruling was "definitely a very hopeful decision."

Boasberg's ruling came after his July decision that new, stronger rules are needed to protect the right whale from extinction. Conservation groups say right whales are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes.

Environmentalists and fishing industry members have long argued over the rules, with fishermen saying they would cripple Maine's lobster industry and that no right whale deaths have been attributed to the lobster fishery.

The population of North Atlantic right whales is estimated at 340 and has declined in recent years.

Staff Writer Randy Billings contributed to this report.