Too Broad, Too Rapid, Too Uncertain

What proposed regulatory changes to the Lobster fishery could mean for Maine communities

Sam Belknap, Senior Community Development Officer
Posted 2022-10-31

If you’ve turned on the radio or watched the news lately, you may have heard about the proposed regulatory changes to the lobster fishery here in Maine. A recent federal court ruling has directed the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)one entity responsible for regulating the lobster fishery—to do a better job of protecting right whales in compliance with the Endangered Species Act. Right whales are a highly endangered species that sometimes transit the waters off the coast of Maine. This decision will fast-track a 10-year plan to achieve a 90% risk reduction for right whales, many years ahead of schedule.  

While there are multiple pathways to achieving this risk reduction, they all rely on a combination of regulatory changes to the lobster fishery that include a significant trap reduction and closures of fishing areaseither seasonally or year-round. The timing, magnitude, and scope of these changes is still being determined, but many likely scenarios lead to significant disruptions for coastal communities. The impacts from a 90% risk reduction would extend far deeper than simply reduced profits and catch for the lobster industry—they would jeopardize the year-round viability of entire island and coastal communities. It is our view that the significant risk reduction and the proposed measures are too broad, too rapid, and too uncertain.  

  • Too broadthese proposed measures don’t incorporate a targeted approach to management. New requirements in places that whales are not likely to be—such as rivers, protected bays, and close to the shore—do little to protect whales and places an unnecessary burden on fishermen.  
  • Too rapid—hasty implementation of these measures significantly increases adverse impact to Maine’s communities and does not give fishermen and business owners adequate time to prepare and respond. 
  • Too uncertain—it is unclear whether the measure will have the desired effect of saving the whales from extinction. 

It will be no surprise to many how deeply connected Maine’s coastal communities are to our ocean resources. Lobstering, in particular, is a cornerstone. Maine’s lobster fleet supports more than 12,000 jobs with an additional 5,500 jobs in the supply chain. In 2021, the total catch brought in from fishermen was worth $725 million. It’s important to recognize the extent to which economic disruptions impact community health and resiliency, especially in island and coastal communities that face unique challenges. In many places where we work, it’s common for one in four or one in five people to hold a lobster license and for almost every family to have a direct connection to lobstering. Many critical services are also tied to the fishery—emergency services like ambulances and firetrucks, are staffed by volunteers, many of whom are lobstermen and women. We believe that Maine communities need a realistic timeframe to adjust to any significant management measures that impact people’s ability to make a living.

The health and wellbeing of the people and families who rely on our working waterfront and make up our island and coastal communities need to be prioritized in addition to the health of right whales. The Island Institute has submitted testimony to NMFS that calls for the agency to allow for sufficient time to develop alternatives, carefully consider the timeframe for required changes, seek targeted solutions that reduce human impacts, and allow for opportunities for people to fish in our bays, harbors, and rivers, even if there are seasonal closures or other measures further offshore. We are continuing to monitor this process and contribute where we can bring helpful expertise. Just as the potential impacts of these proposed measures are broad, so too is our response. We are taking a holistic, organization-wide approach and focusing on supporting coastal communities and their resiliency during this uncertain time.  
We will continue to share updates in the coming months on the regulatory outcomes and opportunities to support impacted coastal communities.