Northeast
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

ME - With bill’s passage, lobster industry welcomes 6-year break from new regulations

The omnibus spending legislation includes a rider that freezes new federal regulation of lobstering practices. President Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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