Maine Lobstermen’s Association Assails Inadequate and Inequitable Vessel Speed Rule


KENNEBUNK, Maine – (November 1, 2022), In official comments submitted this week, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) called on the federal government to apply the law fairly as it develops new rules that would protect North Atlantic right whales from vessel strikes – which are known to have killed multiple endangered whales in U.S. waters in recent years.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has proposed expanding the current mandatory seasonal speed restrictions of 10 knots or less in designated areas of the ocean and require most vessels measuring 35 to 65 feet in length to comply.

Though MLA supports the proposed measures in the speed rule, it objects to NOAA’s continuing pattern of over-regulating U.S. commercial fisheries and under-regulating other sectors, leaving endangered whales inadequately protected from deadly human interactions.

For more than a decade, the Maine lobster fishery has been in near full compliance of the federal whale conservation plan and caused zero observed mortality or serious injury to right whales. In contrast, compliance with the existing vessel speed regulations has been poor and the number of vessel strikes has not been meaningfully reduced with four observed U. S. vessel strikes in U.S. waters from 2020 to 2021.

Despite these facts, NMFS proposes to reduce current vessel strike risk by a mere 27.5% while, at the same time, continues working to accelerate a plan to reduce estimated fishery “risk” to 90% by requiring a new suite of measures on top of those implemented for the 2022 fishing season. NMFS justifies its draconian risk reduction mandate for commercial fisheries as necessary to meet the standard established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), but its proposed vessel strike rule makes no effort to achieve the MMPA standard.

“Maine’s lobster industry is highly invested in doing its part to ensure that right whales recover. But the whales cannot recover unless NMFS holds all potential causes of harm to the same risk reduction standard,” stated Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “That standard is clear – vessel strikes must achieve a 75% risk reduction to comply with the MMPA yet NMFs proposes to reduce risk by 27.5%. Yet the agency seems to have no issue holding the fishing industry to that standard which requires a 90% risk reduction which will devastate the lobster industry.”

“This arbitrary application of the law is causing the fishing industry to suffer disproportionate harm and failing to adequately reduce risk from vessel traffic. The Proposed Rule falls short and reflects an arbitrary, disparate treatment of vessel traffic and commercial fisheries,” MLA writes in its comment to NOAA. 

Background: In September 2021, MLA filed a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s fundamentally flawed 10-year whale protection plan that will all but eliminate the Maine lobster fishery yet still fail to save the endangered whales. MLA argues that NMFS has overestimated the lobster industry’s risk to right whales by cherry-picking the science and using unsupported assumptions and “worst-case scenarios” to justify its mandate for Maine’s lobster fishery to reduce its already minimal risk to right whales by 98-percent. The 2022 federal whale rules and the current 90% risk reduction mandate are part of NMFS’s phased in approach to achieve the 98% risk reduction. MLA charges that National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) also failed to follow mandatory legal requirements to assess the economic and social costs of their actions.

On September 8, 2022, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. ruled against MLA in an opinion that deferred to the federal agency on all counts without disputing the validity of MLA’s concerns. As a result, NMFS is now fast-tracking the ten-year whale plan and will require Maine’s lobster industry to implement an unachievable 90-percent “risk reduction” as quickly as possible or the federal lobster fishery could be shutdown. MLA has been granted expedited consideration of its appeal of this decision.