WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a continuation of their advocacy on behalf of Maine lobstermen and women, U.S. Senators Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine, Representatives Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Jared Golden, D-Maine, and Governor Janet Mills sent a letter to Commerce secretary Gina Raimondo to request a delay of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) new Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan (ALWTRP) rule. Collins raised this issue with Raimondo at a hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 2.

According to the release, the letter calls for the implementation date for gear conversion to be postponed from May 1, 2022, to July 1, 2022. According to NMFS’ own data, changing the compliance date to July 1 would result in a potential increase in risk to whales of just point-nine percent. On the other hand, failure to delay the rule will cost the industry $7.3 million.

Additionally, the letter outlines the challenges facing lobstermen and women trying to obtain compliant gear, and highlights contradictory guidance from the agency on the acceptability of using knots to create weak rope. At the peak of the fishing season later this year, there will be about 800,000 vertical lines in use requiring a weak point, but the sole NMFS-approved manufacturer is producing just 3,000 links per week. Right now, there is only one company producing weak rope that is likely to be used in the Maine fishery (Rocky Mount) and one supplier carrying it (Ketchum).

“As the May 1 compliance date approaches, lobstermen are working earnestly to conform to the new requirements and preparing to absorb anticipated losses,” the Maine delegation and Mills wrote. “They are encountering, however, a new obstacle that demands attention: a scarcity of the very materials they need to comply, including, manufactured weak links and special weak rope.

“In addition, lobstermen are planning to modify their gear to comply with the rule by tying specific weak knots in their end lines. Yet NMFS has left the industry with the impression that the agency will not certify simple knots because it claims they could pose new entanglement risks to whale baleen. This is unjustified given the absence of scientific evidence indicating such a risk, and the fact that manufactured weak links are similar in size. It is also illogical, since NMFS plans to allow the same knots to be used to connect approved braided line. Given the lack of availability of weak rope and manufactured weak links, the certification of knots is critical.

“The large projected economic losses, the negligible change to risk, and the unavailability of rope and weak links are all clear reasons to direct NMFS to extend the compliance date to July 1, 2022. This is a critical opportunity for NMFS to review updated information, demonstrate good faith, and bolster trust with stakeholders. It must not be overlooked.”

The release states, the Maine delegation and Mills have been steadfastly opposed to undue burdens that would threaten the lobster fishery — an important economic driver for Maine — but which do not meaningfully protect whales. Following the release of the final rule in late August 2021, the Maine delegation and Mills issued a statement in opposition to the rule and highlighting the Maine lobster fishery’s record of repeatedly making significant improvements to their practices and modifications to their gear to protect right whales. In October 2021, they wrote to Raimondo to urge her to rescind the rule. In addition, Collins secured $10 million in a draft appropriations bill to help lobstermen and women cover the cost of complying with the regulation.