Maine’s congressional delegation has inserted a clause into the annual $1.7 billion omnibus federal appropriations bill that would delay for six years the onset of new restrictions on lobster gear to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Congress is racing to wrap up the year-end funding package by Friday. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Gov. Janet Mills justified the surprise maneuver in a joint statement Tuesday, while environmental groups protested.

“Despite our industry’s good stewardship and compliance with NMFS’ most recent regulations to protect right whales, our lobstermen and women are now faced with further punitive regulations that will not meaningfully protect the right whale, but will threaten the livelihoods of thousands of Maine families and small businesses,” the Maine leaders said.

They call it “a regulatory pause for Maine’s lobster industry.” 

The measure – known as a policy rider – “will enable our lobster fishery to continue to operate while still complying with NMFS’ most recent right whale rule,” they said. “Without our provision, Maine’s iconic industry could be facing a complete shutdown – and the ripple effects across our state would have been widespread.”

Environmental groups, which have won in their court challenges to force stricter regulations from the National Marine Fisheries Service, cried foul.

“The last-minute backroom deal that produced this bill will have devastating, irrevocable, extinction-level impacts on the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. “The anemic funding levels for endangered species conservation and recovery efforts will affect countless other imperiled species as well. This is a shameful outcome and political dealing at its absolute worst.”

In pressing for the rider, the Maine delegation reiterated their contention that the pending NMFS rules – already postponed for two years until 2024 by a federal judge to give the industry more time to prepare – are an over-reaction because no right whale deaths have been directly attributed to Maine lobster gear.

The omnibus rider would prevent NMFS from enforcing stricter restrictions on lobster gear. It would freeze the current rules, last updated in 2021, and allow them to stay in effect for the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries through the end of 2028.

A new suite of stricter regulations – which potentially could come from ultimate settlement of the longstanding court challenges – would be allowed to take effect for 2029, according to the rider language.

The rider calls for a $20 million grant program “that could fund innovative gear technologies and the monitoring necessary to support the dynamic management of fisheries,” according to the Maine delegation. “Fishermen and other participants within the maritime industry would be eligible for this funding.” 

So-called ropeless gear – replacing vertical trap lines with pop-up buoys that fishermen recall to the surface by remote control – is being tested as a potential long-term answer to fixed-gear wildlife conflicts.

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Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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