When Congress passed its most recent government spending bill, a provision of the law authored by Maine’s congressional delegation brought a temporary reprieve to Maine’s iconic lobster industry, buying fishermen additional years before regulations aimed at protecting the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale will be implemented.

The action has already drawn exhalations of relief from fishing communities and howls of protest from environmental groups. But what it really represents is a resounding endorsement of the power of nonpartisan policymaking.

The lobster-whale conundrum is precisely the kind of issue politicians dread: full of sound, well-reasoned arguments, deep emotional connections and legitimate threats to livelihoods and communities. When the unstoppable force of Maine’s lobster industry finds itself on a collision course with the immovable object that is the Endangered Species Act and the possible extinction of an iconic species, there can be no universally positive outcomes.

Yet in the face of America’s overwhelming political turmoil, in this era of posturing, finger-pointing and name-calling, Maine’s bipartisan delegation and our recently reelected governor put aside their disagreements, came together in lockstep and spent some of their hard-earned political capital to protect our state’s signature industry.

In another time, such unity would have been considered routine. Today, it’s extraordinary.

Extreme adherence to partisan affiliation combined with some politicians’ propensity to earn cheap political points by shouting down any position their opponent takes has become commonplace in other regions. If an endangered species threatened peach farming in Georgia, would anyone expect to see Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene build a coalition with Sen. Raphael Warnock?


Our Maine delegation sided with the lobstermen, and no one should have expected a different outcome. Despite abundant election reforms, whales still can’t vote. But this new language, combined with provisions already in effect such as one requiring fishermen to clearly mark lobster gear so rope recovered from future entanglements can be traced back to its source, recognizes that change must be part of the lobster industry’s future.

I’ve worked closely with fishermen, scientists and environmental groups for nearly two decades, including as lead staffer on this issue for then-Sen. Olympia Snowe when the last round of gear restrictions was implemented in 2010. At the time, we overcame the same doomsaying then that we still hear today – that the rules would mean an end to lobstering forever, or that their absence would be a death sentence for the species – and we found a path forward. This deal represents a similar opportunity today.

The industry secured, in the words of Sen. Angus King, its “Christmas miracle.” And it also now has a responsibility. While lobster gear represents a significant portion of lines in the water here in the Gulf of Maine, fishermen can still point to the fact that there has never been a documented case of a North Atlantic right whale mortality linked conclusively to their rope. Many of them profess never to have seen a right whale during their long careers on the water. The gear marking rules will put such anecdotal assertions to the test.

Just as lobsters go through the disruptive, vulnerable shedding process as they grow, the industry itself must prepare to engage in an uncomfortable period of upheaval. Lobstermen must stop dismissing out of hand the future feasibility of experimental “ropeless” fishing gear and instead use the funding that will flow from this law to engage with researchers and environmentalists to help reshape their industry for the future. To start, they can follow the lead of some of their contemporaries on Cape Cod, who have participated in pilot studies of ropeless gear for over a year and reported some early successes.

Simultaneously, Maine’s congressional delegation and the Department of Marine Resources must continue their work to deliver this funding and execute the oversight necessary to ensure it is spent properly and expeditiously. And federal regulators must accelerate their efforts to develop and impose new restrictions to address the other leading cause of whale mortality: ship strikes in the busy shipping corridors of America’s Atlantic coast.

Regardless of where you stand in the seemingly eternal case of Whales v. Lobstermen, we should all be impressed with our home team’s collaborative effort. This outcome was only possible because Maine is represented by an exceptional group of political leaders who were willing to cross party lines to benefit their constituents.

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