Maine lawmakers are considering a bill that would establish a $30 million fund to help offset the financial impacts of new regulations on the lobster industry and other commercial fishermen.

As written, 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. It was unclear Tuesday whether a taxpayer-funded relief package for one specific industry would be unprecedented in the state.

New rules to protect endangered whales will present long-term challenges to the viability and sustainability of Maine’s iconic lobster fishery, according to the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay. If left unaddressed, the ripple effects would be felt across the state, she told the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee on Tuesday.

Last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a 10-year plan to help protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale from deadly entanglements in fishing gear. But Maine lobstermen have said the rules won’t protect whales and will put their livelihoods at risk.

The first phase of the plan, released last August, adds requirements that include state-specific gear marking, weak points in rope to allow entangled whales to break free, and a 967-square-mile seasonal closure off the Maine coast to reduce risks to whales by 60 percent this year and 98 percent over 10 years. The closed area, a lucrative winter fishing ground off-limits to lobstering from October through January, reopened Tuesday. The other requirements go into effect in May. 

Scientists believe there are fewer than 340 right whales left worldwide, so the species has become a flashpoint among environmentalists, federal regulators and fishermen because of the whales’ tendency to become entangled in fishing gear.


But Maine fishermen say they are being unfairly punished despite a lack of evidence that they are the ones harming the whales. A right whale death has never been attributed to the Maine lobster industry, and the last known right whale entanglement in state waters was in 2004.

This first round of changes is expected to cost the industry $50 million to $80 million in lost revenue, additional gear, lost time, added labor and other expenses, according to Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. There are more than 4,000 working lobstermen in the state.

The proposed $30 million fund, known as the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan Impact Fund, would be administered by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Eligibility requirements for receiving relief from the fund have not been determined.

The money would be taken from the “unappropriated surplus of the General Fund,” according to the bill, L.D. 1898.

Patrick Keliher, DMR commissioner, said the department would likely use landings data to help determine who is eligible.

Gillnet fishermen are also subject to pending rule changes, and they would also be eligible for financial relief, Keliher said.


Lobsterman and Republican Rep. William Faulkingham of Winter Harbor told the committee that the new regulations have already cost him tens of thousands of dollars and are likely to cost him significantly more. 

Faulkingham said he recently had to overhaul his boat to accommodate the new gear requirements, an estimated $40,000 cost. Two new sets of rope, one for state waters and one for federal, will need to be marked correctly and could set him back another $40,000, he said.

Faulkingham said the 2021 lobstering season was a good one, but the coming rule changes have him worried about the future.

“I don’t know how I’m going to survive after 2025, let alone 2030,” he said.


The lobstermen’s association has already gotten a jumpstart on trying to offset some of these costs. In November, it announced a three-year, $10 million fundraising campaign to help the industry fight the new regulations. 


According to Keliher, the industry needs money for its courtroom efforts, too. Otherwise, he said, the relief funds would only offer “a very short-term victory.” Next week, the Marine Resources Committee will hear testimony on L.D. 1916, a bill that would create a legal defense fund for the industry. 

The new lobstering rules have been subject to a slew of legal challenges.

In October, a U.S. district judge granted a temporary restraining order, effectively stopping the closure just days before it was to go into effect.

However, the following month, a U.S. appeals court overturned the decision and reinstated the ban.

Late last year, the Department of Marine Resources also was granted “intervenor” status in a federal lawsuit brought by the lobstermen’s association against federal regulators over the new restrictions.

In the lawsuit, the association argues that the fisheries service’s “biological opinion,” the basis for the new rules, is unlawful. It claims the service acted arbitrarily by failing to rely on the best available scientific information and failing to account for the positive impact of conservation measures already adopted by the Maine lobster fishery.


Keliher told lawmakers Tuesday that the department may need up to $1 million to cover the legal fees for ongoing and potential future court battles. Gov. Janet Mills already allocated $250,000 toward legal fees in the fall. 

Sponsored by Faulkingham, L.D. 1916 would be funded by depositing 20 cents from the sale of each lobster trap tag and 20 percent of a license surcharge that pays for the state’s lobster marketing collaborative. It would establish a seven-member commission to administer the collected funds. 

In an interview, Senate President Troy Jackson, who co-sponsored the legal defense bill, called the new rules “an anchor around the industry’s neck.” 

That Maine has to bear the brunt of the regulations, despite what he said is a lack of evidence that right whales are even in state waters, “reeks of hypocrisy,” he said, and it’s time to act. 

“The state of Maine has to take a more aggressive role in defending this heritage industry that means so much, not just to the coast of Maine, but to people across the state,” Jackson said. 

The committee will hear comments on the legal fund in a public hearing and discuss the industry relief fund in a work session, both on Feb. 8.

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