Eric Pray unpacks a lobster on a wharf in 2020, in Portland, Maine. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press, file

Maine’s congressional delegation has perhaps never been so united as it was in adding a provision to the massive government spending bill that they believe could save the lobster industry from economic ruin.

Lawmakers in Washington are working feverishly this week to pass the omnibus appropriations bill that would fund federal agencies through the next fiscal year. The current stopgap spending measure expires Friday. Maine’s delegation succeeded in adding a rider to the bill that would protect Maine lobstermen for six years from federal regulations they claim could decimate the state’s iconic industry and coastal economy. Environmental groups, however, contend the provision announced Tuesday could wipe out the endangered North Atlantic right whales.

The rider would essentially reverse a federal court decision this summer on new lobstering regulations by preventing them from taking effect until Dec. 31, 2028.

This would not only bring the fishery back into compliance with environmental laws but would also give fishery officials and researchers time to study potential new types of lobster gear less likely to entangle the whales, and to learn more about them and how much they frequent Maine waters.

In a news conference Wednesday morning, Maine’s delegation – Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden – and Gov. Janet Mills said the rider was a difficult but necessary addition that united politicians on both sides of the aisle.


Collins said she has never seen the Maine delegation so united as in its push to secure the rider, which also includes up to $50 million in annual funding to study, develop and deploy new “ropeless” fishing technology.

The need to fend off some of the more “onerous” regulations heading toward the lobster industry has been a conversation for years. But a court order this summer giving the industry just two years to come up with new rules that could essentially overhaul the fishery added a new sense of urgency, Golden said. The omnibus was the only vehicle the lawmakers could identify to get the regulatory pause in place.

Adding the provision and getting support from their peers and congressional leaders was a lengthy process, the lawmakers said. It involved late nights and early mornings, countless emails and phone calls, and many committee meetings in the Senate and House chambers, working to perfect language and persuade fellow legislators. Attaching a rider to legislation – often a “must-pass” package like an appropriations bill – is typically an exercise in bipartisan compromise, involving the bill’s sponsors and key members from both major parties.

“It was an extremely difficult process, but because we worked as a team we were able to get the job done,” Collins said.

But none of this is a done deal, and on Wednesday elected officials continued to push for the reprieve.

While King was unable to provide details on when and how the funding would be distributed, he was optimistic that it would be rolled out “pretty rapidly,” ideally by the spring or early summer.


Collins said she wants to make sure the appropriations are targeted toward groups who will test the gear, including lobstermen, the University of Maine, the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the Maine Lobstering Union. 

“The future amounts remain to be determined, but we need to make sure that the funding goes to entities that will really help us solve this problem,” she said.

King called the rider “a Christmas miracle for the lobster industry” and said he will work with federal agencies to develop better data surrounding right whales and their feeding habits.

“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 in any significant degree and aren’t really at risk,” he said.

King stressed that the provision is not the whole answer, but it’s a pause.

The Maine delegation will continue to work over the coming months to “remove this cloud of uncertainty and get to the point where the people who work on the water can get up in the morning and know that they’re going to have a livelihood at the end of the day or at the end of the month,” he said.


Collins said Wednesday that the provision is a victory for common sense. “(It) is essentially a reprieve of up to six years from the regulations that were coming at us like a freight train this summer,” she said.

Collins said she has never seen a worse case of regulatory overreach than attempts to address a problem by blaming an industry not responsible for the problem.


The National Marine Fisheries Service in August 2021 approved new rules designed to protect North Atlantic right whales, which are thought to number fewer than 340.

The much-debated regulations included new gear marking mandates, a reduction of vertical lines in the water, the insertion of weak points in rope and a seasonal closure of a nearly 1,000-mile stretch off the Gulf of Maine. The rules are the first of three phases designed to reduce the risk to the whales by 98% in 10 years, but Maine lobstermen have said that level of risk reduction will simply shift the extinction from the whales to the lobster industry. Fishermen have long contended that right whales are not in Maine waters, and there has never been a right whale death attributed to the Maine lobster industry. 

In July, a federal court ruled that the first set of regulations didn’t do enough to protect the whales, putting the fishery in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. As a result, the fishery lost two important sustainability ratings. The judge gave regulators until 2024 to implement new, more effective rules.


Despite Mills’ assertions that the provision is a “straightforward, common-sense compromise,” environmentalists have condemned the rider as irresponsible, an end run around the legal system and a death sentence for the imperiled whales. 

The Center for Biological Diversity, which has been involved in litigation to strengthen protections for the whales, said in a statement that if the provision passes, the animals “will almost certainly be on an irreversible extinction trajectory.”

Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the the conservation nonprofit, accused the Senate of immorally sacrificing a species to extinction in exchange for funding the government. 

“A hundred years from now, no one will remember or care about the trivial victories Democrats will try to claim in this legislation, but they’ll mourn the loss of the right whale,” he said.

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