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As lawsuits pile up, lawmakers consider new bill to extend lobster legal defense fund

Robert F. Bukaty
AP Images

Maine lawmakers are considering a new bill that would extend the lobster legal defense fund for another five years.

The fund was created last year to help the industry fight legal battles against federal rules aimed at protecting endangered right whales, but the latest proposal has revived debate about where exactly the money should come from.

The new bill from Maine House Republican Leader and lobster fisherman Billy Bob Faulkingham would annually inject $500,000 into the industry's legal defense fund.

The funds, paid for through existing surcharges on lobster licenses, would be split between the Maine Lobstermen's Association and the Maine Lobstering Union. Both organizations have been hosting their legal defense fundraising events. But they say more is needed to wage a number of ongoing legal battles, which they believe have crippled the lobster fishery and threaten an iconic Maine industry.

"This is just a supplement to what's being needed, because the legal costs are going to be in the millions of dollars," Faulkingham told the Legislature's Marine Resources Committee, which heard testimony Thursday on his bill.

For Stonington lobsterman Kate O'Neal, the state's legal defense fund should be larger.

"I want to be supported. I need that legal defense," she said. "I haven't renewed my license this year because I don't know where it's going. I don't know where this industry is going. I want to fight for it."

But the proposal has divided the groups that represent and promote the Maine lobster industry.

The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative said it opposes the new bill, because it too relies on license surcharges to support its own operating budget.

The legislature created the lobster legal defense fund last year under a similar budgetary scheme, where some money typically paid to the Marketing Collaborative through license surcharges was diverted to help cover the industry's attorney's fees.

"We're at a really critical time from a public relations standpoint, and we saw this specifically last year," said Marianne LaCroix, the marketing collaborative's executive director.

While the legal defense is important, LaCroix said the organization's own efforts to combat negative press after the fishery lost two sustainability certifications last year are equally essential to protecting the industry.

"There's a lot of indications that this worked," she said. "The dealers are telling us that the materials that we created for them were very influential and valuable to them as they were talking to their customers. They had customers who had told them prior to the certification loses that they would not be able to carry Maine lobster anymore if we did not have these certifications. And as far as I know, only one customer actually stopped buying Maine lobster as a result of that."

But Patrick Keliher, commissioner of Maine's Department of Marine Resources, said an alternative funding mechanism, such as devoting general funds to the industry's legal battles, could set a concerning new precedent.

"Does the state want to fund the private industry groups with general fund dollars? So where does that stop?" he said.

The lobstermen's association and union are both fighting federal fishing regulations through multiple lawsuits. They hired a high-profile attorney with a long list of appearances before the US Supreme Court to argue on their behalf in federal appellate court.

The industry also recently sued the Monterey Bay Aquarium after it stripped the lobster fishery of a sustainability certification last year.