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ME - Fight to protect right whale, lobsters roils Maine politics

Republican Ed Thelander, a former Navy SEAL who’s running for Congress in Maine, caused a big stir when he criticized NOAA for imposing new rules on the state’s lobstermen as a way to protect North Atlantic right whales.

“NOAA wants to rape you and your family, and they’re saying pick a child. … You don’t negotiate with a rapist, and that’s what’s happening,” Thelander said at a lobster rally in Portland earlier this month.

Thelander apologized after drawing criticism from his opponent, Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, and the state’s Democratic Party, which tweeted the remarks and called them “disgusting and unproductive.”

Thelander quickly backtracked at a candidate debate, saying his remarks had been “over the top.” Still, he and Pingree both remain critical of NOAA’s approach.

In a state where few things matter more than lobster, it’s no surprise that Mainers are getting a hefty portion of crustacean politics as part of the campaigning for the 2022 midterm elections.

What is surprising, however, is the high level of anger and frustration pointed squarely at Washington regulators, with many arguing that NOAA’s new rules are unfair and will hit the prized lobster industry far too hard.

Rule backers say they’ll help protect a dwindling population of whales that’s at grave risk from fishing gear. Lobstermen must limit the number of buoy lines in the water and weaken remaining lines, allowing whales to break free from entanglement and avoid serious injury.

With an estimated 340 whales now remaining, NOAA has faced heavy pressure and litigation from green groups and conservationists who fear the animals will go extinct unless the federal government moves more aggressively to protect them (Greenwire, July 11).

But Pingree and other members of the Maine delegation — from both sides of the aisle — said this year that “NOAA’s own data show that the Maine fishery has never been linked to a right whale death.”

‘Terrible crisis’

Some of the loudest critics of the NOAA rule include some who aren’t even on the ballot this year, such as the state’s two senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King.

At a scoping forum hosted by NOAA at the University of Southern Maine earlier this month, Collins said the regulations are not based on scientific data because there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear.

In addition, she said, Maine lobstermen had already removed more than 30,000 miles of line from the water.

“The men and women who make up Maine’s iconic lobster fishery are facing a terrible crisis, a crisis not of their making, a crisis that is due to this administration’s onerous regulations,” Collins told NOAA officials. “I could not believe tonight when I saw the presentation saying that this plan is ‘based on a solid scientific foundation.’ That is simply not the case.”

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