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Judge should back longer deadline to write better lobster rules

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There may be good news on the horizon for Maine’s lobster industry. In a recent court filing, an environmental group said it favored a longer deadline for new rules to prevent North Atlantic right whales from becoming entangled in lobster fishing gear.

This is a positive development – and should be supported by the federal judge overseeing two cases related to federal lobster fishing regulations – as the additional time is needed to better understand how and where whales interact (or do not interact) with lobster. equipment. With this information, federal regulators can craft better and more effective rules to protect whales without overburdening lobster fishermen.

Here’s the catch, though. The environmental group leading the lawsuit, the Center for Biological Diversity, continues to push for very strict rules, including a switch to ropeless fishing to protect right whales.

Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, told the editorial board of the Bangor Daily News that he was “cautiously optimistic” about the center’s latest legal filing and the prospect of giving regulators more time to develop better ways to manage lobster fishing to protect whales. The longer timeline also gives the state time to pursue other challenges with Congress and another court case that is moving quickly in a federal appeals court.

As we and others have said time and time again, stricter rules should not be put in place until it is clear whether Maine’s lobster fishing gear poses a threat to right whales. , which are more likely to be killed by collisions with boats than by entanglements.

By giving regulators more time, new rules can be based on better science and better suited to the realities of right whale migration and lobster fishing. For example, regulators could rely more on so-called dynamic management, Keliher explained. In this system, areas of the ocean can be closed to fishing when whales are in the area. To be effective, whale movements must be better monitored, through flights over the ocean and acoustic listening devices, which are increasingly being used off the coast of Maine.

Such reactive measures would be better than the widespread gear changes and longer-term, massive closed areas that fisheries agencies have proposed and used in the past.

This case began in 2018 when the Center for Biological Diversity sued Wilbur Ross, then head of the U.S. Department of Commerce, claiming the department was not doing enough to protect right whales, which are an endangered species. The Department of Commerce includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulate federal fishing.

The federal judge hearing the case ruled earlier this year that the NOAA rules were too weak. He asked the center, federal regulators and other parties, including the state of Maine, to come up with better rules.

The Center for Biological Diversity had originally called for these rules to be in place in six months, which sparked a scramble in NOAA to write much stricter rules. As part of this process, the agency has raised the possibility of significant reductions in the rope in the water and more enclosed areas. At the request of Maine lawmakers, the agency held a meeting in Portland on this proposal, where it was roundly criticized.

Now, in a court filing last week, the Center for Biological Diversity said it could support a longer timeline — two years, instead of six months — for the new rules. But, he wants the new rules to be much stricter than those currently in place.

“Plaintiffs are prepared to accept the longer timeline suggested by NMFS and the Maine Department of Marine Resources – a final rule by December 9, 2024 – to ensure the agency finally enacts the comprehensive measures that the [Marine Mammal Protection Act] requires through a robust public process,” the Center for Biological Diversity said in an Oct. 21 court filing.

A federal judge must agree to this delay for it to take effect. He should.

As an addendum, the fact that the center has made it so clear that it is willing to agree with the Maine Department of Marine Resources shows the state’s close involvement in this matter. Some politicians have argued that Maine should file its own new case to protect the state’s lobsters. This court record shows that such a decision is not necessary. It demonstrates that the state, through its Department of Marine Resources, is already an integral — and, for now, effective — part of this lawsuit, influencing the thinking of the environmental group that first filed the lawsuit. venue.