Maine elected officials are pushing back with gusto against new federal measures to protect the imperiled North Atlantic right whales because of the impact of the new regulations on the state's vital lobster industry.

The moves by Maine Gov. Janet Mills, who characterized the whale protection measures as "foolish" and an "absurd federal overreach," and the state's congressional delegation ultimately could have repercussions on Massachusetts' lobster industry.

Or not. No one seems to know right now.

"The actions by Maine were a bit of a surprise, but nothing has been determined yet," David Pierce, director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said Monday. "At this point, we don't know what the federal government is going to do in response. There will be upcoming meetings and discussions, but right now it's really wait and see."

On Friday, Mills penned an open letter to the Maine lobster industry in which she said federal regulators have not provided specific evidence that the nation's largest commercial lobster fleet is a primary threat to the remaining stock of North Atlantic right whales, now estimated at about 410.

"There is a disturbing lack of evidence connecting the Maine lobster industry to recent right whale deaths," Mills wrote in the letter. "The Maine lobster industry is not the primary problem for right whales."

The new measures, crafted in April by the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, are supposed to be a regional blueprint for reducing the risk posed to right whales by commercial fishing gear.

The team generated a number of possible solutions, including a massive reduction in the number of vertical buoy lines in the water and the use of weaker quick-break lines for those that remain in use.

The measures call for lobstermen throughout New England to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water to mitigate entanglements and help reduce right whale mortalities by 60 percent throughout the region.

In Massachusetts and New Hampshire, lobstermen are tasked with reducing the number of vertical buoy lines by 30 percent. In Maine, the reduction target is significantly higher: 50 percent.

The states are tasked with delivering detailed plans for achieving those goals by September. Now however, Maine seems to be wavering on its commitment.

According to the Portland Press Herald, Mills has directed the state Department of Marine Resources to produce its own risk-reduction target, specific to the state's lobster industry, for submission in September.

"We are going to put together a plan based on the risk as we see it, not as they see it," DMR Commissioner Pat Keliher told the Press Herald. "We are at a disagreement. We're not saying hell no. But I'll be damned if we're going to stand by while they put rules in place that hurt the fishery and has no benefit to whales."

Earlier last week, Maine's congressional delegation sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking the president to intercede on behalf of the Maine lobster industry because the proposed restrictions impose "significant economic hardship" on the lobster industry and the state's fishing communities.

"In the past two years, 14 of 22 confirmed right whale deaths were found in Canadian waters," the delegation's letter stated. "So far in 2019, there have been six right whale deaths, all of which took place in Canada. Three of those deaths have been attributed to ship strikes, not fishing gear entanglements. And three right whales have suffered non-fatal rope entanglements in Canadian waters this year compared to no such incidences in the Gulf of Maine."

The proposed restrictions on trap lines come as a warming ocean has triggered concerns about the long-term health of the lobster fishery, and a shortage in herring used for bait is creating a worry for lobstermen this summer.

Maine is far and away the nation's largest catcher of lobster, with 83%, or nearly 120 million pounds, of the domestic haul.

Massachusetts as a whole boasts the nation's second-largest lobster harvest, about 11% of the U.S. total. Gloucester is the state's No. 1 lobstering port, with Rockport among the top 5.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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