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$30 million relief fund for lobstermen gets initial nod in Maine House

Robert F. Bukaty
AP Images

Lawmakers in the Maine House gave initial approval Thursday to a $30 million fund to help lobstermen comply with new federal regulations aimed at protecting endangered whales.

Starting on May 1, lobstermen in Maine will have to begin using weaker rope or special links on traplines that are designed to allow a whale to break free from fishing gear. The new federal regulations are aimed at preventing endangered North Atlantic right whales from potentially deadly entanglements. But the rules will come at a cost for the lobster fishing fleet, which hauled in a record $725 million in lobster last year.

Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, a fisherman from Winter Harbor in Hancock County, said the proposed $30 million fund from the state will help mitigate the costs for an iconic industry that generates more than $1 billion for the state.

"We are going to be hurting for the money to comply with those rope regulations,” Faulkingham said on the House floor. “Whether we like it or not, those deadlines and those regulations are not changing. They are coming from the federal government and that's going to be a cost that is put on us. An unnecessary cost, but it is coming regardless."

Maine's powerful lobster industry contends that fishermen in this state are not to blame for entanglements that have injured and killed right whales. But only a fraction of the more than 1,700 right whale entanglements documented over the decades have been linked to a specific fishing industry. And advocates for the whales say they often feel sidelined by the industry during policy debates in Augusta.

Members of Maine's congressional delegation have secured $14 million to help lobstermen buy gear to comply with the new federal rules plus $3 million for research on the fishery and whale migration patterns. The Maine House voted 116-18 on Thursday to give initial approval to the proposal, LD 1898, for another $30 million in state funds.

But Rep. Will Tuell, who represents a lobstering district in Washington County, was among those who voted against the bill.

Tuell said there will be time to provide relief funding later. But for now, he said the state's focus should be on lawsuits seeking to block the federal regulations.

"We are in court. We are waging a war, a war that we have one choice: win or die,” said Tuell, R-East Machias. “That's our choice. At the same time, bills like this, as well-intended as they are, only serve to muddy that message."

The bill now goes to the Maine Senate for consideration.