Mills Administration Calls on NOAA to Focus on True Risk to Right Whales

September 19, 2019

In comments to NOAA on right whale rule, Mills defends Maine’s lobster industry

Governor Janet Mills announced today that her Administration has submitted comments to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) on the pending Right Whale Rule. In an accompanying letter to NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver (PDF), Governor Mills stated that Maine supports the protection of the right whale, but emphasized that NOAA should take into account where the true risk to the species lies, emphasizing that data shows most recent right whale deaths have occurred in Canada. Governor Mills also highlighted the importance of the lobster industry to the state and underscored its commitment to conservation. 

“The Maine lobster fishery is the cornerstone of Maine’s coastal economy and an iconic part of the State’s identity. In many coastal communities, particularly in rural parts of the coast, almost every person and job is related to the lobster fishery,” wrote Governor Mills. “Mainers take great pride in our lobster fishery for many reasons, not the least of which is its longstanding leadership in conservation. The commitment to responsible, sustainable harvesting practices in this fishery is known worldwide and include measures which have been in place to protect broodstock for over a century. […] In the last decade, there have been zero right whale serious injuries or mortalities linked to the Maine lobster fishery. However, even with this record, the lobster fishery is being asked to do more.”

In response to a proposed 60 percent risk reduction target assigned by NOAA in July, Governor Mills wrote a letter to Maine’s lobster industry, expressing support for them and calling the regulations “foolish, unsupported, and ill-advised”. In the letter, she directed Commissioner of Marine Resources Patrick Keliher to evaluate a different risk reduction target, one that is commensurate to any actual risk posed by the Maine lobster industry. 

“We want to protect the right whale, but to do it in the right way,” said Governor Mills, “one that considers the safety of Maine fishermen and the viability of our fishing economy.”

The Department of Marine Resources will share its findings with industry in the coming weeks prior to providing a draft plan to NOAA.

“Data is clear that Canada is responsible for the vast majority of recent deaths, with 8 right whale deaths occurring this year alone,” Governor Mills wrote. “This should not be a surprise. Studies show right whales are spending more time in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at a time when Canada has weakened its protection to right whales. The Maine lobster fishery and the Department of Maine Resources remain dedicated to strengthening protections to right whales, but we continue to stress that NOAA’s focus must take into account where the true risk lies.”

Lobstering provides direct employment for more than 4,800 Maine harvesters and supports over a billion dollars in indirect economic impact through the supply chain, including wholesale dealers, processors, gear suppliers, bait suppliers, and freight companies. The lobster industry is also a critical driver of Maine’s tourism economy, which is worth over $6 billion annually to the state. 

NOAA rulemaking is set to begin this coming winter, for implementation in 2021.

The full text of Governor Mills’ letter is below and the comments from the Department of Marine Resources are attached (PDF).


Dear Mr. Oliver,

The Maine lobster fishery is the cornerstone of Maine’s coastal economy and an iconic part of the State’s identity. In many coastal communities, particularly in rural parts of the coast, almost every person and job is related to the lobster fishery. Lobstering provides direct employment for more than 4,800 Maine harvesters but their landings support over a billion dollars in indirect economic impact through the supply chain, including wholesale dealers, processors, gear suppliers, bait suppliers, and freight companies. It is also a critical driver of our tourism economy, which is worth over $6B annually to the state. It cannot be overstated, the lobster fishery is essential to the social fabric of Maine, providing community and identity to so many of our coastal residents.

Mainers take great pride in our lobster fishery for many reasons, not the least of which is its longstanding leadership in conservation. The commitment to responsible, sustainable harvesting practices in this fishery is known worldwide and include measures which have been in place to protect broodstock for over a century. In the context of large whale protections, the lobster fishery has also been a leader in the development and evolution of conservation measures. Maine fishermen have been at the table for over twenty years as partners with the federal government, conservation community and other fisheries as the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team has worked to develop and implement regulations including gear markings, weak links, sinking groundline, and vertical line reductions. The entanglement records suggest these efforts have been successful. In the last decade, there have been zero right whale serious injuries or mortalities linked to the Maine lobster fishery. However, even with this record, the lobster fishery is being asked to do more.

Data is clear that Canada is responsible for the vast majority of recent deaths, with 8 right whale deaths occurring this year alone. This should not be a surprise. Studies show right whales are spending more time in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at a time when Canada has weakened its protection to right whales. The Maine lobster fishery and the Department of Maine Resources remain dedicated to strengthening protections to right whales, but we continue to stress that NOAA’s focus must take into account where the true risk lies.

As evidenced by past regulatory actions, and by the attached detailed scoping comments from the Department of Marine Resources, the State of Maine remains a committed partner with NOAA Fisheries. We share your interest in seeking to achieve protections for right whales that will be effective, and we remain resolute that any proposed measures must also minimize hardship to Maine’s iconic lobster fishery.