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Maine's lobster industry wins against endangered right whale protections

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

If you're planning to splurge on a certain seafood for a New Year's dinner or if you've tried to buy it recently, you might already know lobster has been at the center of a high-stakes battle. It's pitted advocates for endangered whales against one of the nation's most valuable fisheries. As Kevin Miller of Maine Public Radio reports, that state's political leaders just scored a major victory for the industry.

KEVIN MILLER, BYLINE: The lunch crowd is filling Portland's downtown eateries as Curt Brown docks his boat at one of the local fishing wharves. He's been out on the cold December waters since well before dawn, hauling lobster that could end up down the street or as far away as Shanghai.

CURT BROWN: Yeah, we hauled - I say we. Me, myself, and I hauled about 200 traps today.

MILLER: Maine's 5,000 self-employed lobstermen contribute an estimated $1.5 billion to the state's economy, so Brown says additional federal regulations aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales could have a devastating ripple effect.

BROWN: You're not only going to impact harvesters. You're going to impact many, many other businesses as well.

MILLER: Just before Christmas, Brown's industry received welcome news. Federal regulators have been under court order to develop stricter rules within two years to protect right whales from potentially deadly entanglements in rope from lobster gear. But Maine's small congressional delegation recently pulled off a procedural end run by inserting an additional four-year delay into the $1.7 trillion spending bill passed by Congress. Maine's Democratic, Republican and independent elected officials, who have locked arms with lobstermen, say the delay will avoid closures that could destroy the industry while allowing more research into how often whales enter prime fishing grounds. And Republican Senator Susan Collins says additional money will speed up development of ropeless lobster gear.

SUSAN COLLINS: In the 25 years that I've been privileged to represent Maine in the United States Senate, I've never seen a worse case of regulatory overreach to address a problem and blame an industry that is not at all responsible for a problem.

MILLER: Environmentalists are livid. The Conservation Law Foundation, which sued under the Endangered Species Act to force the stronger protections, says delay proponents have, quote, "the blood of a magnificent endangered species on their hands." And Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity says the decision could put the right whale on an irreversible slide to extinction.

BRETT HARTL: Is there a chance that we can save the right whale still in 2028? Yeah, sure. It maybe was a 50/50 proposition before. Now it's, like, 95% to 5% again.

MILLER: North Atlantic right whales were hunted nearly to extinction more than a century ago. Today, biologists say the biggest threats to the 340 remaining right whales are collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing rope. While no deaths or recent injuries have been linked to Maine lobstermen, whale advocates say it's often impossible to trace gear. Maine Senator Angus King disagrees and says without a regulatory delay, an iconic part of Maine could be lost.

ANGUS KING: It merely pauses that economic death sentence until we have time to know how to navigate the solution and what the real definition of the problem is.

MILLER: The battle has even seeped into the supermarket seafood section. Maine's congressional delegation moved to block all federal funding to California's Monterey Bay Aquarium after the organization's seafood watch program urged consumers to skip the lobster. And some state lawmakers are targeting Whole Foods over its decision to stop selling them. Back on the Portland waterfront, Curt Brown contends lobstermen have done more than any industry to protect whales by switching to breakaway rope, sinking rope and more traps per line.

BROWN: We are the largest fixed gear fishery on the East Coast. If we were entangling right whales, we would know. Someone would be seeing it, and it would be documented. And we're just not seeing it.

MILLER: Buoyed by the recent news, Brown set about securing his gear for the next big storm, this one coming from Mother Nature, not Washington, D.C. For NPR News, I'm Kevin Miller.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHRUANGBIN'S "COMO ME QUIERES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin A Miller