The Senate Appropriations Committee has unanimously approved funding increases to several federal programs critical to Maine’s coastal communities, including ones President Trump had repeatedly proposed eliminating.

The committee approved the fiscal year 2020 budget bill for the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Justice and related science agencies, including provisions to boost funding for the National Sea Grant program by $7 million to $75 million, with $2 million allocated to support research on lobsters and herring (which lobstermen use as bait), and how the rapid warming of the Gulf of Maine affects them. This follows the $2 million awarded from Sea Grant’s fiscal year 2019 budget to lobster researchers at the University of Maine, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve and other institutions.

“These investments will help us to better understand how the lobster stock is reacting to changing environmental conditions and ensure that Maine’s iconic industry that supports thousands of jobs continues to thrive,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said Thursday in a statement announcing the 31-0 vote. “As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I fought to include these provisions, and I am pleased that they were incorporated in the final package.”

The move by the Republican-controlled Senate is a rebuke to Trump, who has twice sought to eliminate the Sea Grant program – part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – which has had a massive effect on coastal life in Maine. Maine Sea Grant researchers created the Fishermen’s Forum, the industry’s premier event, in 1976; helped found the Portland Fish Exchange and the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute (which researches issues of concern to the industry); and funded groundbreaking work on monitoring juvenile lobster populations; technical solutions for mussel, scallop and kelp farmers; and the monitoring of marine bacteria that plague shellfish harvesters.

In a statement to the Press Herald, Collins said she “strongly opposed the Administration’s shortsighted proposal” to eliminate funding to the program and was pleased her colleagues had joined her in protecting them.

Trump’s previous budget proposals also sought to eliminate funding for the Wells Reserve and the 28 other National Estuarine Research Reserves across the country as well as the agency’s coastal zone management program, which provides grants to protect and restore coastlines. Instead the budget approved by the committee boosts funding for coastal zone management grants by $1 million to $76.5 million and allocates research dollars to the estuarine reserves.

The bill includes $10 million for right whale research – a $2 million boost – with particular emphasis on better tracking of the critically endangered whales and their food sources. Half that funding – $1 million – is to be allocated to a pilot program to test new fishing gear technologies designed to reduce right whale entanglements.

NOAA’s fisheries management branch is also directed to “fully evaluate the feasibility and economic implications of any management actions” relating to the right whale, an apparent nod to Maine lobstermen’s concern that they are being unfairly targeted at a time when the endangered whales appear to have abandoned their coast. The bill even directs them to consider recent research showing the whales’ food source – the flealike copepod Calnus finmarchicus – is decreasing in the Gulf of Maine, reducing their presence here.

The Integrated Ocean Observing System, which supports a network of deep ocean buoys in the gulf that provide detailed oceanographic information to scientists and fishermen, gets $38.5 million.

The bill also boosts funding for the Legal Services Corporation, a Nixon-era agency that provides funding for legal aid agencies that help the poor take grievances to court and which Trump also tried to eliminate. The agency is slated to receive $425.5 million, an increase of $10.5 million over last year. In Maine, it provides around $1.4 million a year to Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a 50-year-old legal aid agency that represents poor Mainers in 4,500 cases a year.

Pine Tree made national news in 2009 after one of its volunteers exposed the nationwide “robo-signing” scandal among sub-prime mortgage lenders. In its early years, Pine Tree brought young legal fellows from out of state, including a young Virginia lawyer named Angus King and attorney Tom Tureen, who would reach the 1980 Indian land claims settlement with the state, transforming the rights of tribal people in the eastern United States.

The Democratic-controlled House passed its version of the bill June 25. It contains many of the same measures in regards to these programs as the Republican-controlled Senate version. Sea Grant receives a $5 million increase instead of $7 million, while the Coastal Zone Management grant program gets $3.5 million more than in the Senate version.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, the 1st District Democrat who sits on the House appropriations committee, said she intends to “keep fighting for this critical funding that the Trump administration tried to eliminate.”

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. 

The full Senate must pass its bill and then reconcile it with House colleagues before sending it to Trump for his signature, presumably before the current funding extension ends Nov. 21.

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