A bill that would set up a legal defense fund to help the Maine lobster industry fight a series of impending regulatory changes was met with mixed reaction from lawmakers and industry participants during a public hearing Tuesday.

The Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee also tabled a vote on another bill that would create a $30 million economic relief fund for lobstermen, paid out of the state’s general fund.

The push for legal and economic relief comes in advance of new federal rules that will require lobstermen in the Gulf of Maine to adopt special ropes and other equipment and techniques designed to reduce mortality risk to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Those rules are set to take effect May 1, although the industry is seeking a 60-day extension.

Unlike the proposed economic relief fund, which would rely on taxpayer money, the legal defense fund would be paid for with surcharges on lobster trap tags and licenses. Those fees would generate an estimated $807,000 a year for the fund, but would divert money away from other industry causes.

The legal defense bill’s sponsor, Rep. William Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, said it would help the industry fight “crippling regulations” designed to protect right whales, but regulators said the fund could do more harm than good.

Last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a 10-year plan to help protect right whales from deadly entanglements in fishing gear. 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. 


Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said last week that the new requirements could cost the industry $50 million to $80 million in lost revenue and added costs. There are more than 4,000 working lobstermen in the state.

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. Maine lobstermen have long contended that they are not part of the problem.

Gov. Janet Mills already allocated $250,000 toward legal fees in the fall, and Patrick Keliher, commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, told lawmakers Tuesday that another $980,000 has been approved in the supplemental budget. 

In Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Sherman Hutchins, R-Penobscot, said the legal defense fund is needed to prevent the “destruction of the fishing industry.”

Jim Hanscom, vice chair of the Maine Lobstering Union, said supporting the bill is a “no-brainer.” 

“We are up against such bogus regulations,” Hanscom said. “This is a first step as a way for us to generate some funds.” 


But Keliher said that while the bill would technically be industry-funded, it could also have unintended consequences.

Keliher said that, if passed, the bill would divert funds from other needed efforts to manage the lobster industry and could result in staff cuts. The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative would also take a funding hit, he said.

“We are not aware of any other situations where the state has formed a legal defense fund on behalf of private industry advocacy groups,” Keliher said in his testimony. “The question the committee needs to ask itself is whether this type of legal defense fund makes sense, or whether the (attorney general’s) office and the executive branch should take the lead on this type of action.”

Leaders of advocacy groups the Maine Animal Coalition and Mainers Guarding Right Whales also opposed to the bill.

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