On Lobsters, Right Whales and the Endangered Species Act

by Jonathan Reisman


Maine lobster was recently placed on the unsustainable “red list” by the environmental group Seafood Watch, associated with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Governor Mills, Senators Collins, and King, and Representatives Pingree and Golden all came out in defense of the Maine lobster industry, and defended its sustainability bona fides. It was a nice photo op, but the truth is King, Collins, and Pingree had plenty of warnings that the environmental left was using the Endangered Species Act to damage Maine’s economy and sovereignty, but chose to do nothing. 

Maine’s lobster community has been under attack for 25 years because:

The Endangered Species Act says that biodiversity is an overarching meta value that trumps all other concerns, especially economic costs and freedom;

“Sustainability” is the new poorly defined measure of environmental virtue, which the environmental left uses as a cudgel. 

Maine’s political leaders have lacked the courage to confront the environmental left and fix the Endangered Species Act. Their efforts to fight for the lobster industry come more than 20 years after they all declined to make any effort to fix the ESA.

The first warning came in the 1970s when the Dickey-Lincoln initiative to expand cheap public hydropower in rural Maine was ultimately stymied by the discovery of the endangered Furbish-Lousewort plant on the Allagash and St. John. The recently passed Endangered Species Act trumped economic development efforts in Northern Maine, and everyone kneeled to the new god of biodiversity.

In the wake of the destruction of the forest products industry in the Pacific Northwest by the Spotted Owl listing in the 1990s, environmentalists targeted aquaculture, blueberries, and forestry with the proposed listing of Atlantic salmon on seven small and pristine Down East rivers. Then Governor Angus King got the Feds to accept a state conservation plan in lieu of a federal listing. The Natural Resources Council of Maine and Biodiversity advocates immediately began a court challenge that resulted in an ultimately statewide federal listing just after the 2000 Presidential election while the nation was focused on hanging chads and endless recounts in Florida. Senator Collins marched to the Senate floor to condemn the listing, but protected her moderate and green bona fides by simultaneously declaring her unconditional support for the Endangered Species Act. Over the next decade, she refused to join or support Western Senate Republican efforts to amend the ESA.

As the leader of Washington County’s opposition to the listing (cheekily named Washington County First! after Earth First! promoted the Spotted Owl Listing), I had urged Gov. King, Senators Snowe, and Collins, and Representative (soon-to-be Governor) Baldacci to join efforts to amend and fix the Endangered Species Act, but they all demurred, even as Max Strahan (the Prince of Whales) and the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institute began using the ESA to attack Maine’s lobster industry. Strahan, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the rest of the environmental left succeeded in getting costly gear and restrictive area regulations imposed in a 20-plus year effort that has led to the current crisis. 

The ESA was passed in 1973 with little or no consideration of the consequences of making Biodiversity an overarching policy goal trumping any other concern. When the consequences began to emerge, Congress passed “the God Squad” amendment to allow for some consideration of the political and economic consequences. Over the last 50 years, the ESA has been remarkably untouchable, despite a record of expensive failure. Species have been listed in error (the spotted owl), and very few of those listed have actually recovered (Atlantic salmon and Right whales are excellent examples), and of those that have, not as a consequence of the ESA’s heavy hand (Bald eagle recovery is more attributable to the DDT ban than ESA habitat regulations such as the ban on any new development within 1/4 mile of any eagle nest, active or not.) One of the most likely landowner responses to ESA listing excesses is the infamous advisory to “shoot, shovel, and shut up.”

The Endangered Species Act, as written and implemented, is going to destroy Maine’s lobster industry. Governor Mills and our Congressional Delegation had plenty of warnings but chose for political reasons not to take on the environmental left. Their protestations now are empty political theatre, and I hope the lobster community sees it for exactly what it is - too little, too late, and the consequence of cowardice and green virtue signaling. It is, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.

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