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Maine delegation says new federal money will help settle lobster industry debate

East Boothbay lobsterman Eben Wilson (right) and sternman Daniel Barter weave plastic links into trap rope.
Fred Bever
Maine Public
East Boothbay lobsterman Eben Wilson (right) and sternman Daniel Barter weave plastic links into trap rope.

Gov. Janet Mills and Maine's congressional delegation took a victory lap Wednesday to tout a measure they were able to include in a federal spending package that imposes a six-year regulatory pause for the lobster industry.

The amendment would prevent federal officials from imposing new regulations on the lobster industry until 2028. A federal court ruling issued earlier this fall had previously given the fishery two years to further reduce their risks to the endangered North Atlantic right whale population.

"This was the only vehicle, the omnibus spending bill, that we could identify as a way to get this pause in the regulations for six years," Republican Sen. Susan Collins told reporters Wednesday morning.

Collins and others described the proposal as one of the more significant cooperative efforts among the governor and members of the Maine's congressional delegation to intervene on behalf of a state industry.

"This was a Christmas miracle for the lobster industry," said Sen. Angus King, an independent.

If the spending bill passes later this week, Maine will receive about $52 million this year to test new gear and fishing techniques that could minimize risks to endangered right whales, Collins said.

The federal spending package also authorizes a 10-year grant program, which, if funded each year, could provide additional money for research projects aimed at reducing whale injuries and deaths.

"As someone who will surely be the vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I want to make sure that additional appropriations are targeted going to the lobstermen and women who can test the gear, going to University of Maine for example, going to the state Department of Marine Resources, going to Maine Lobstermen's Association and Maine Lobstering Union, going to those groups," Collins said.

The funding is key to collecting more information about the whales' whereabouts, Collins and the other members of the Maine delegation said.

King said additional research should definitively prove what has become a popular talking point — that lobstermen rarely see the whales, and that a whale entanglement hasn't been linked to the Maine fishery in nearly two decades.

"One of the major things for me is going to be to work with all the federal agencies to develop better data," King said. "I think it's going to show... that we may not need to do radical gear modification if indeed the whales aren't in the Gulf of Maine to any significant degree and aren't really at risk."

Environmental groups have said they agree more information needs to be collected, and that right whales are perhaps using the Gulf of Maine less often than in the past.

But they say the whales are difficult to track, and they point to the thousands of miles of rope that Maine's lobster fishery has in the water in calling for more restrictions. There are fewer than 350 remaining right whales.