Although Maine’s lobster industry is set to receive $17 million in federal funding as part of the 2022 omnibus spending package, it is unlikely to affect two bills going through the Legislature that seek more than $30 million in state funds for the industry.

The spending bill will bring more than $200 million in funding for projects across the state. For the lobster industry, it includes $14 million to help lobstermen comply with new federal regulations intended to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, set to take effect May 1, along with $760,000 for the Department of Marine Resources to conduct outreach and education among lobstermen, and $2.3 million for right whale research, monitoring and conservation.

“This funding comes at a critical time, as Maine’s lobster industry faces challenges from both an uncertain future and the looming May 1 implementation date,” said Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Lobstermen have adopted many conservation measures to protect whales in recent years, such as replacing floating lines used to link traps along the ocean bottom with sinking lines, increasing the number of traps per buoy line, and adding weak inserts to buoy lines so they break if whales become entangled. The new regulations require gear modifications such as adding more weak links to vertical lines, increasing the number of traps per line and adding new markings at intervals along the lines.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association estimates those three measures will cost the industry from $45 million to $86 million, including labor and material, modifications to vessels, cost of additional crew to handle longer trawl lines and loss of fishing time to reconfigure gear, according to a recent court filing by association President Patrice McCarron. The association estimated that a seasonal closure of roughly 950 square miles in the Gulf of Maine, implemented this winter, cost the industry between $1 million and $2 million.

Two bills that have been endorsed by the Legislature’s Committee on Marine Resources would provide additional state funding for the industry.

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L.D. 1898 would set up a $30 million relief fund for lobstermen affected by the new whale-protection regulations. Bill sponsor Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, said she has no plans to withdraw the bill in light of the federal funding. The crisis facing the industry is “large and looming,” she said, and requires multiple levels of response.

“If we’re fortunate enough to see additional federal resources come to bear … we can use those additional resources to continue to address the issues related to new closures in federal waters and the need for replacement gear so the fishing industry can continue to do the work that they do,” Stover said. “I’m incredibly appreciative of our federal delegation that we’re working together to address what really is an urgent crisis here in the state of Maine.”

She said the bill has received bipartisan support, and that lawmakers recognize the need to find ways to mitigate the industry’s losses. The bill would provide relief money via the state’s General Fund, the primary operating fund of Maine state government. Its largest sources of revenue are individual income taxes, sales and use taxes, cigarette taxes and corporate income taxes.

The Maine Lobstering Union also is continuing to support Stover’s bill.

“The portion of these (federal) funds that will go towards defraying the cost of compliance for weak links, gear configurations and marking is most needed,” said Virginia Olsen, the union’s executive liaison and political director. “When data was compiled for our cost to implement these changes; gear didn’t cost what it does today. … The Maine Lobstering Union is very thankful to our federal delegates for their continued support of the men and women who work tirelessly in often hazardous conditions on the sea, and those who support us shoreside in Maine’s lobster industry.”

Another bill would establish a $900,000 annual legal defense fund for the lobster industry. Attempts to reach the bill’s sponsor, Rep. William “Billy Bob” Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, were unsuccessful Friday. Still, it’s unlikely that Faulkingham would withdraw the bill. The omnibus funding can’t be used for legal defense, said Keliher, the marine resources commissioner.

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The industry also welcomes the additional appropriations funding earmarked for research.

“It is also important to understand these funds will not solely be used to defray cost,” said Olsen, adding that some of the money will be used for electronic tracking and other technology. “The Maine Lobstering Union has been a proponent (of) real-time science from the beginning.”

Keliher agreed that funds for better research are needed.

“Support for improved science will also ensure more targeted regulations in the future, which will have better conservation benefits for whales and (fewer) unintended consequences for Maine fishermen,” he said.

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