Shortly after sunrise last month, a lobsterman motors his skiff through Cape Porpoise harbor, on the way to his lobster boat. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographe

Maine’s lobster industry heaved a collective sigh of relief Friday afternoon following the passage of a 4,200-page federal spending bill that includes a few paragraphs lobstermen and their advocates say could save the industry from devastation. 

Hours before a stopgap spending measure was set to expire, Congress voted to pass the $1.7 trillion omnibus package to fund the government through September 2023. The package passed in the Senate Thursday afternoon with a large bipartisan majority, 68-29. The House approved the legislation Friday afternoon in a 226-201 vote, with just nine Republicans joining Democrats to back the bill. It now heads to President Biden, who is expected to sign it into law.

Maine’s delegation was able to include a rider in the package that protects lobstermen for six years from rules that the industry says would decimate the state’s iconic fishery and coastal economy. The provision essentially reverses a federal court decision this summer on new lobstering regulations by preventing them from taking effect until Dec. 31, 2028.

“This is a tremendous victory for Maine’s lobster industry,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a written statement Friday. “Our bipartisan, commonsense proposal will keep Maine’s iconic lobster industry in business, invest significantly in research, monitoring and innovative technologies, and protect the livelihoods of thousands of Maine families up and down the coast.

“I was proud to work closely with Senator Collins, Senator King, Representative Pingree, and Representative Golden, and I thank them – as well as the Maine Department of Marine Resources – for their strong partnership and collaboration on behalf of our state.”

Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said this week that the rider is a major step forward.


“Without this provision, (the) Maine lobster industry could be facing a complete shutdown, which would have widespread, devastating consequences to our state,” he said.

This not only brings the fishery back into compliance with environmental laws but gives 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.

The provision includes up to $50 million in annual funding to study, develop and deploy the new “ropeless” fishing technology.

While it was welcome news for the lobster industry – King called it a “Christmas miracle” – environmentalists mourned the passage of what one group called the “extinction omnibus.” 

The Center for Biological Diversity, which has long been involved in litigation to strengthen protections for the whales, said the omnibus will almost certainly begin an irreversible path toward extinction. The animals’ current population numbers fewer than 340, with only 70 breeding females.

“Right whales inspire awe, wonder, respect and appreciation. The needless suffering they will endure is heartbreaking,” said Stephanie Kurose, a senior policy specialist for the conservation nonprofit. 


The National Marine Fisheries Service in August 2021 approved new rules designed to protect North Atlantic right whales.

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.

It was not immediately clear if the omnibus passage will be enough to reinstate the sustainability labels from the Marine Stewardship Council and Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. 

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