top of page

Delano: Biden administration won’t leave lobstermen alone

October 25, 2023

Lawmakers and a federal appeals court last year defeated a federal plan to save endangered whales by eradicating New England’s lobster industry. With those plans undone, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is crafting a workaround scheme to regulate lobstermen out of the fishery.

Recent years have been brutal going for lobstermen, such that the survival of our trade is highly uncertain. Lobstermen are at once negotiating higher fuel costs, higher bait costs, higher shipping costs, and an agitation campaign from dark money nonprofits trained on major buyers of Maine lobster products. NOAA’s new regulatory plan is poised to decimate our inventory.

NOAA’s new plan – a rule promulgated under the Marine Mammal Protection Act – would expand an existing restricted area, where lobster fishing is banned for three months each year. The scope of the expansion is unclear as of this writing, but any expansion is unwelcome as a matter of precedent and a practical business matter.

As with the previous plan, NOAA is allegedly crafting its new rule to protect the endangered north Atlantic right whale. The agency maintains vessel strikes and entanglements with lobster gear are killing these marine mammals.

It’s important to emphasize that there is no evidence lobstermen are harming right whales. In fact, the late surge in deaths across whale species tracks construction and survey activity in support of offshore wind platforms. I am not sure offshore wind development is to blame. But the Biden administration is quietly studying that possibility, even as it pins blame on the lobster industry.

The Biden administration has not demonstrated – because it cannot – that lobstermen harm right whales. But even if it could make that showing, this latest proposal would still be unjustified. The people have first claim on the government’s protection. Attacking American workers, and the communities who depend on us, to the alleged benefit of endangered whales is a betrayal of the government’s duty of care to its citizens.

These events demonstrate the extent to which agency process, bad science, and complex statutory schemes obfuscate the practical needs and interests of working people. Much is in mind for NOAA Fisheries – rule makings, biological opinions, the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Remote coastal communities who depend on a trade to survive do not figure in interagency arcana.

I can’t predict what lobstermen and maritime workers will do for work in the future, but I know that the demise of our lobster fishery will be a social and economic catastrophe.

Downeast fishery spans Washington and Hankcock counties. Washington is the poorest county in Maine, with a poverty rate near 20%. The three largest sources of income in that county come from government assistance, the Woodland Pulp paper mill, and lobstering. Four of Maine’s top-ten earning ports are in the Downeast fishery.

Lobster dollars from these ports keep the service and retail economies of this depressed region moving. Local banks finance home, boat, and business loans for lobstermen. This remote, sparsely populated area – Québec City is closer than Boston – has no viable economic alternatives without the lobster industry.

Lobstering supports 15,000 jobs through the maritime supply chain and generates $1 billion annually for the local economy. Don’t let the macros obscure this essential fact – our lobster fleet is composed exclusively of independent operators. Every Maine lobster product that reaches your plate was plucked from the sea by a captain who owns his own vessel, or a sternman that he employs.

There are no corporate players in the Gulf of Maine. Lobstering is a heritage passed down within families over many generations.

For this reason, lobstermen don’t have the resources to retain lobbyists or trade associations to promote our interests in Washington. We’re barely able to advocate on our own. Laying traps, harvesting lobster, or keeping our vessels ship-shape has near-exclusive claim on our time. It’s always jarring when fisheries regulators remind us to make townhall meetings. It’s hard to cut away for a meeting while at sea.

The invitation is insincere in all events. It’s a rare day when NOAA listens to us.

Dustin Delano, a fourth-generation lobstermen, is chief operating officer of the New England Fishermen’s Stewardship Association


bottom of page