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February 05, 2020

Maine Delegation Calls on NOAA to Protect Right Whales from Ship Strikes

NOAA has proposed no new restrictions to address ship strikes, but moves forward with broad new regulations on lobstermen

WASHINGTON — Maine’s congressional delegation called on the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) this week to take steps to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale from ship strikes and questioned the agency on why it has failed to address the threat ships pose to whales. 

In their letter, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Angus King (I-ME), Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (ME-01), and Congressman Jared Golden (ME-02) noted that ship strikes and fishing gear have each been linked to comparable amounts of known right whale mortalities since 1970. However, while NOAA has not added new rules to reduce U.S. ship strikes since 2008, the agency is currently moving forward with sweeping new regulations on lobster fisheries that could have large negative impacts on fishermen’s livelihoods and safety.

“Given the enormous impact upcoming regulations are poised to have on Maine’s lobstermen and the coastal communities they support, it is unfortunate and ineffective that NOAA appears to be moving forward with a rulemaking process addressing the risk from fishing practices while improvements to regulations on the outsized role of ship strikes on right whale mortality languish,” wrote the delegation. “Efforts to protect this critically endangered species must be grounded in data, which clearly shows that shipping, cruises, and other non-fishing activities pose a serious threat to the future survival of the North Atlantic right whale.” 

Just last month, a right whale calf was spotted with life-threatening injuries attributed to a ship strike. 

“Lobstermen are being forced to stomach regulations that could threaten their livelihoods in order to protect right whales, but NOAA has not proposed a single new restriction on cruise lines or shipping companies to protect right whales from ship strikes,” said Congressman Golden. “There’s an easy explanation for this: shipping and cruise line companies have the money to pay for teams of lawyers and lobbyists, but lobstermen do not. Either NOAA needs to tell us why they have failed to address the significant risk posed by ship strikes or the agency needs to admit that it is unfairly targeting lobstermen instead of working on a comprehensive solution to protect right whales.”

“Our lobstermen and women have been such careful stewards of our natural resources for generations, and they should not be unfairly targeted by regulations intended to protect the fragile right whale population,” said Senator Collins.  “Our letter calls on NOAA to more forcefully address ship strikes, a leading cause of right whale mortalities.  The Maine Delegation will continue to fight on behalf of our state’s lobstermen and women as well as the small businesses that rely on this industry.”

“Maine’s lobster industry is one of the most sustainable, conservation-focused fisheries in the world, so it’s unfortunate that burdensome regulations are set to make it harder for lobstermen to do their jobs and provide for their families,” said Senator King. “NOAA has made important progress to account for the threat that ship strikes pose to right whales, but those rules have not been updated since 2013 while Maine lobstermen face regulations that make their jobs more dangerous and difficult. I’ll keep working with my colleagues to find data-driven solutions that protect the right whale population and ensure that the men and women who support Maine’s lobster industry are listened to, not targeted.”

“News of a right whale calf being seriously injured by a ship’s propeller is sobering and a reminder of just how precious this species is. Our approach to protecting right whales must be comprehensive and address all danger posed to right whales,” said Congresswoman Pingree. “Rather than solely focusing on lobstermen and their gear, NOAA must account for the myriad of risks posed by big vessels in our waters. Ship strikes are a serious hazard for the right whale and NOAA must answer as to why they have neglected to hold shipping vessels and cruise lines accountable for endangering the right whale.”

The delegation also raised the threat that Canadian ships pose to right whales. Between 2017 and 2019, seven of the 18 dead whales found in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence were attributed to ship strikes. Despite this pattern, Canadian authorities have removed speed restrictions in some areas while continuing to implement reactive, dynamic closures that prohibit shipping and fishing activities only after a whale has been sighted.

“Without comprehensive corrective actions from Canada, we will continue to see more right whale deaths by ship strikes in that country’s waters, which will inevitably and adversely impact the severity of mitigation measures required of U.S. fisheries,” Collins, King, Pingree, and Golden continued. 

“As NOAA takes steps to protect right whales, lobstermen are asking for a fair process based on the facts. What we’re getting instead is a process that does not address the impacts of other countries and industries and instead demands that lobstermen shoulder much more than their fair share of the burden. I join our Maine delegation to urge NOAA to finally tackle the threat right whales face from vessel strikes. If NOAA’s goal is truly to do whatever it can to protect these whales, it must address the range of risks these animals face, not just the minimal risk from lobstermen.” - Patrice McCarron, Executive Director, Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

You can read the letter here.

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