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Federal bill would undo six-year right whale regulatory pause championed by Maine delegation

This Dec. 2, 2021, photo provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources shows an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing rope being sighted with a newborn calf in waters near Cumberland Island, Ga.
Georgia Department of Natural Resources
This Dec. 2, 2021, photo provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources shows an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing rope being sighted with a newborn calf in waters near Cumberland Island, Ga.

The bill has a long name: The Restoring Effective Science-based Conservation Under Environmental Laws Protecting Whales, or the RESCUE Whales Act.

But the legislation, introduced earlier this week by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, would have a simple outcome. It would eliminate a provision that pauses the development of new federal right whale regulations on the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries for the next six years, a measure that Maine's congressional delegation slipped into the latest federal spending bill during the final days of 2022.

In joint statement, all four members of the Maine delegation defended the provision, which they described as a "lifeline" to the state's lobster industry that provides "time to pinpoint the true cause of the decline in the right whale population."

The Rescue Whales Act, they said, would "unfairly target Maine’s lobster industry without any data or taking into account the reality in the Gulf of Maine."

"We will oppose any attempts to reverse our science-based law that protects Maine’s iconic fishery and thousands of hardworking Maine families who are committed to good-faith conservation measures that actually protect right whales," the delegation added.

In his own statement, Grijalva, who serves as the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, called the delay provision an "existential threat" to the endangered right whale population." The federal spending bill also included some $50 million to test new gear and fishing techniques that could minimize risks to endangered right whales, as well as additional research on the whales' whereabouts.

But Grijalva said the regulatory delay measure ignores solutions such as ropeless fishing gear, and he believes the provision undermines the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Lobstermen have applauded the delay measure championed by the Maine congressional delegation. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen Association, said the six-year pause, along with the additional research funds, "fill in important gaps in scientific knowledge about how and why the right whale population is declining."

The RESCUE Whales Act, she said in an email, is "yet another attempt by deep pocketed advocacy organizations to continue their unjustified attack on the lobster fishery."

Maine lobstermen maintain that the fishery hasn't been tied to a right whale entanglement in nearly two decades.

Conservationists, however, argue that the data tying entanglements to any fishery any limited, because the whales are difficult to track. There are an estimated 340 right whales remaining.

“The science is clear that entanglements in the US lobster fishery not only kill right whales outright but impair their reproduction, pushing them ever closer to the brink of extinction," said Jane Davenport, an attorney with the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife, which has endorsed the RESCUE Whales Act.

Grijalva's bill has a few Democratic co-sponsors.

This isn't the first time that federal legislation has been proposed with the goal of protecting North Atlantic right whales. The details have varied over the years, but both Democrat and Republican members of Congress have introduced various bills that would have funneled millions of dollars into right whale research and new fishing techniques.

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