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Maine delegation cheers budget language to delay lobster rules

A lobster fisherman sorts gear before leaving the dock before sunrise, Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Portland, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
A lobster fisherman sorts gear before leaving the dock before sunrise, Tuesday, June 7, 2022, in Portland, Maine.

Members of Maine's congressional delegation celebrated budget language that would delay new federal regulations that they contend could shut down much of Maine’s iconic lobster industry.

The delegation inserted language in a massive, omnibus budget bill that would prevent federal fisheries regulators from imposing new regulations on the industry until the end of 2028. Regulators have been under intense pressure from environmental groups as well as the courts to enact new restrictions on the lobster fishery in order to better protect endangered North Atlantic right whales. But lobstermen as well as all of Maine’s high-ranking political leaders contend that the industry poses little risk to the whales, which are believed to number less than 350 worldwide, and that lobstermen have already taken significant steps to avoid entanglements.

“This is a great win for the lobster industry in Maine,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican who serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee that crafted the budget bills. “The entire delegation plus the governor and the Department of Marine Resources experts have worked really hard to secure this legislation. Our concern is that if the federal regulators were to impose another set of onerous regulations on the industry ... that it truly would result in the closure of the fishery. And that’s the direction that the federal agencies were headed.”

Sen. Angus King, who is an independent, called the impending regulations an "economic death sentence" for an iconic, $1.5 billion industry that supports thousands of jobs and is the lifeblood for some coastal towns. The language inserted into the budget bill, King said, will give scientists time and money to gather more data about where right whales actually are while also supporting additional research into developing fishing gear that minimizes risks to whales.

"Under the court order in November the lobster fishery in Maine would be shut down in two years,” King said. “That's the stark reality of what we are facing and that's why we had to act. And what we've come up with a good proposal that basically pauses this draconian court order for up to six years."

All four of the delegation members pointed out that the last documented injury to a right whale from Maine lobster gear was in 2004 and that there has never been a right whale death linked to the industry. Meanwhile, there have been numerous examples in recent years of whales killed or seriously injured by ships and Canadian fishing gear.

Environmental groups and whale advocates counter that most gear found on whales can't be traced back to a specific fishery. And they that point out that Maine's lobster fishery has thousands of miles of rope in the water.

But, again, delegation members contend the data is lacking — and they argue the language in this budget bill will help.

"We're not saying ‘No, never’ — we're saying let's pause and let's go out and make some federal investments in gathering better information and investing in the future,” said Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents Maine's 2nd Congressional District that stretches from the midcoast to the Canadian border.

Golden called the looming regulations "an incredibly serious threat to the survivability of the lobster fishery" that he added is made up of thousands of self-employed individuals.

"A six-year pause is important for them financially and economically but also it's important for those who are focused on the survival of the right whale population,” Golden said.

1st District Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree called the budget language a "very solid investment in both saving our fishery and protecting the right whale" because of millions of dollars allocated for whale research and development of safer lobster gear.

Pingree, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said there is real potential for so-called ropeless traps but that it’s still largely an untested technology that is years from being widely available to lobstermen.

Pingree also pushed back against some of the rhetoric coming from environmental groups about politicians having whale blood on their hands and that the delay puts the endangered species on a track to extinction.

"I think we are trying to look at this in the most cooperative way possible and respecting the concerns from both sides,” Pingree said. “And a lot of vitriolic language is not helpful. And it doesn't get us to solve the problem."

There is still a possibility that House or Senate members from other states could attempt to strip the lobster regulations language from the $1.7 trillion budget bill. But members of Maine's delegation say they are hopeful that won't happen as Congress rushes to finalize it.