PORTLAND, Maine — A group of lobster fishermen has sued fishing regulators in federal court, claiming that new electronic monitoring requirements designed to protect rare whales are unconstitutional.
The new rules went into effect on Dec. 15 and require fishermen with federal lobster fishing permits to install 24-hour electronic tracking devices on their boats. The Maine Department of Marine Resources, which regulates fisheries in Maine, has promoted the new rule as a way to collect better data that can both benefit the fishery and help save the vanishing North Atlantic right whale, which is vulnerable to potentially lethal entanglement in fishing gear.
Five lobstermen who are members of a lobster fishing union filed their lawsuit in federal court last week. The fishermen said they oppose the requirement that the tracking devices must be operational regardless of what the boat is being used for at the time
“The plaintiffs contend that minute-by-minute surveillance of Maine’s federally licensed lobster fleet is unconstitutional, unwarranted and unfair to Maine lobstermen, who have proven through the actions of generations of lobstering families that they are good stewards of the ocean ecosystems essential to their livelihoods,” said Thimi Mina and Alfred Frawley IV, attorneys for the fishermen, in a statement.
Fishing monitoring, whether by human workers or electronic surveillance, has long been a contentious issue among commercial fishermen. Regulators defend the rules as vitally important to collect data used to manage fisheries, but many fishing groups view them as overreach.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission announced the monitoring rules in 2022. The commission said in documents at the time that “it is critical to gather and provide updated” data about commercial fishing to aid the right whales, which number less than 360.
The Atlantic States commission has not had time to fully review the fishermen’s complaint, a spokesperson for the commission said. Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said the data collected by the trackers would benefit lobster fishermen in the long run.
“Data from the trackers is a critical component of the Atlantic states’ effort to ensure that the lobster industry is not burdened with management decisions based on assumptions derived from insufficient data,” Keliher said.
The tracking devices were issued to Maine lobstermen using congressional funding, state officials said. Not all of the lobster fishermen issued the trackers have installed them, said Virginia OIsen, the Maine Lobstering Union’s political director. Olsen said the court case, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maine, does not yet have a hearing date.