Despite fierce pushback from environmentalists, congressional leaders have included a controversial rider in the $1.7 trillion federal government funding package that would block stricter federal rules meant to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale from becoming entangled in fishing gear.
As HuffPost first reported Friday, Maine’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Susan Collins (R), championed the provision and lobbied for its inclusion, arguing that it would provide relief to a lobster industry that they say has been the target of unfair and misguided regulations.
Collins’ office called the proposal “a simple compromise.” Environmentalists have warned it could drive the right whale to extinction.
In July, a federal judge ruled that a 2021 regulation that established new requirements for lobster traps to reduce the risk of entangling whales didn’t go far enough. Among other things, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rules limited the number of vertical fishing lines that could be deployed in Maine waters and set new seasonal zone restrictions. The judge ruled that the regulations fell short of fulfilling two key environmental laws: the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The Maine delegation’s measure effectively voids the judge’s ruling and blocks stricter rules that the court ordered federal agencies to finalize by 2024.
An initial draft of the provision would have cemented the 2021 regulation for 10 years. The measure was modified during negotiations, with the exemption reduced from 10 years to six. The provision also sets aside grant funding — $50 million per year through 2032 — to reduce the risk of entanglement, vessel strikes and other threats to the imperiled whale species. That includes $40 million earmarked for “innovative gear deployment and technology.”
The changes did little to satisfy environmentalists, who rallied over the weekend in an effort to block the proposal.
Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity ― one of three organizations that sued the federal government to force stronger safeguards for right whales ― said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Appropriations Committee Chair Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) had “heartlessly put special interests above our nation’s beautiful natural heritage.”
“Sacrificing a great whale to extinction in exchange for funding the government is immoral,” Hartl, the organization’s government affairs director, said in a statement. “Doing so just to give Sen. Schumer another political chit in his pocket is simply pathetic.”
Connor Fagan, federal policy manager at ocean advocacy group Oceana, called the move “a bridge too far.”
“Environmentalists won’t soon forget the last-minute nature of this enormous carveout of our foundational environmental laws,” he said. “The effect of this shortsighted giveaway is likely to be disastrous for the whales.”
Over the weekend, more than 70 organizations, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Oceana, signed a letter urging Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democratic leaders to reject the measure. They said the provision “would set a damaging precedent for the political override of science-based decisionmaking under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Act; undermine active federal litigation and reverse judicial orders; and further threaten the survival of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.”
The North Atlantic right whale is among the most critically endangered species on the planet. Its population has been steadily falling since 2010, and fewer than 350 of the whales are estimated to be alive. Entanglements in fishing gear, vessel strikes and climate change are the biggest threats to their survival.
In a separate letter to Democratic leadership on Sunday, members of the Atlantic Scientific Review Group, which advises federal agencies on marine mammals on the Atlantic coast, said the Maine delegation’s amendment “would likely doom the North Atlantic right whale to extinction.”
Maine lawmakers have dismissed conservationists’ concerns.
“Maine’s lobstering community has consistently demonstrated their commitment to protecting right whales,” Collins’ spokesperson Christopher Knight previously told HuffPost. “If these groups are unwilling to agree to something so straightforward, it shows an utter disdain for the men and women who make their living from one of the best managed and sustainable fisheries on earth.”
Asked if environmental groups were considering future legal action, Hartl said the provision’s language precludes litigation and likely can’t be overturned. He expects the measure will ultimately shift the burden of protecting right whales to other ocean users.
“To stop the slide towards extinction, the National Marine Fisheries Service must reduce the cumulative harm and impacts to right whales,” he said. “If it is prohibited from addressing the impacts of the lobster fishery, it must address the other threats more aggressively, including offshore wind, vessel strikes and all other fisheries-related impacts.”