A proposal to create a $30 million fund to help lobstermen comply with new federal requirements designed to protect endangered right whales received overwhelming and bipartisan support in the Maine House on Thursday.

Funding for the bill, sponsored by Rep. Holly Stover, D-Boothbay, would come from the state’s unallocated surplus and would help fishermen meet new federal requirements for fishing rope.

Those rules could cost the industry between $50 million and $80 million in lost revenue, additional gear, lost time and added labor, according to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. One lawmaker estimated the new rules would cost the average fisherman tens of thousands of dollars.

Stover said the relief fund is needed to protect Maine’s iconic and valuable lobster fishing industry, which has had to constantly adapt to evolving federal regulations to prevent endangered right whales from being entangled in ropes.

“The federal rule changes and subsequent closures of federal waters has created a fiscal crisis for an industry that is an economic driver of this state,” Stover said. “This bill allows the industry that is in crisis to continue to operate despite regulatory changes that have been imposed and are deeply affecting Maine’s lobstermen.”

The House advanced the bill on a 116-18 vote. The bill faces additional votes in the Senate, but the overwhelming support in the House indicates it is likely to pass. The Maine Department of Marine Resources testified in support of the bill, indicating it also has Gov. Janet Mills’ support.


A small number of Republican House members objected because they worried that creating a relief fund would undermine lawsuits challenging the new rules.

Rep. William Tuell, R-East Machias, said creating the fund would signal that Maine has accepted the new rules, even while challenging those rules in court. He said Maine lobstermen were “waging a war” against the new federal regulations.

“We have one choice: win or die,” Tuell said. “This is admitting defeat before we finish the court case.”

Rep. Joyce McCreight, D-Harpwell, pushed back against that notion.

“We need to continue to fight, and we’re not stopping,” McCreight said. “This is affecting our state. The fact that the evidence is not there that Maine’s lobster fishery is causing the problem is one of the frustrations we all feel. We’re working to correct the science. We’re working to correct the rules.”

Scientists believe fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales are left, making the species a flashpoint among environmentalists, federal regulators and fishermen because the whales can become entangled in the fishing gear. The federal Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to protect the whales from virtually all human threats.


But Maine fishermen say they are being unfairly punished despite a lack of evidence that their lines are 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.

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.

The phase one requirements include state-specific gear marking and weak points in rope to allow entangled whales to break free.

It also includes a nearly 970-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 target area is a lucrative winter fishing ground that is off limits to lobstering from October through January.


Tuell argued that the federal government should be bailing out lobstermen since it is responsible for the new rules. But Stover said Maine’s funding would simply supplement any federal assistance that may materialize in the future.


Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, expressed support for the fund. He said that fishermen will pay on average $20,000 to $30,000 to buy new gear to meet the rope requirements by May 1.

“These rules – whether we are adamantly opposed to them or not – are taking effect,” said Faulkingham, who is a fisherman. “We’re going to be hurting for the money to comply with those rope regulations.”

Two Democrats, Rep. Lois Galgay Reckitt, of South Portland, and Rep. Robert Alley, of Beals, joined 16 Republicans in opposition.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, thanked House members in a written statement after the vote.

“MLA appreciates the efforts of Maine’s lawmakers to offset the enormous costs these rules are imposing on lobstermen, and we continue to focus on our legal challenge to force the government to go back to the drawing board and come up with a plan that will protect whales without eliminating our lobstering heritage,” McCarron said.

To be eligible for funding under the bill, fishermen must be Maine residents who have held a Class I, II or III lobster and crab fishing license for the past three calendar years and purchased at least 400 trap tags in two of the last three years.

Amounts provided to each individual will vary by the value of their landings.

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