Maine's congressional delegation is using the $1.7 trillion federal spending bill to try to delay for six years new protections for endangered whales to protect Maine's lobster industry.
The amendment would leave existing lobster fishing regulations in place for the time being, thwarting new restrictions aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales, which are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear. A federal judge previously delayed the new rules until 2024 to give the government time to craft them.
Maine's congressional delegation and Democratic governor presented a united front, saying the new rules would "not meaningfully protect" right whales while threatening the state's signature fishery — and thousands of families.
Get New England news, weather forecasts and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NECN newsletters.
"The fact is — there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear," said the statement from Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Gov. Janet Mills. Without the delay, they said, "Maine's iconic industry could be facing a complete shutdown."
The Conservation Law Foundation and several other environmental organizations decried the move. Congress is under pressure to approve the spending bill by midnight Friday, or face the prospect of a partial government shutdown.
"Sneaking this move into a spending bill is a profound and disturbing end run around the legal system," Erica Fuller, CLF senior attorney, said Tuesday in a statement.
Conservation groups have pushed for a different type of fishing gear to avoid entanglements, which along with boat strikes are one of the two big threats to the whales.
The lobster fishing industry contends there's no evidence to suggest lobster gear is to blame for entanglements. And fishermen argue that stricter rules could cripple the industry. But conservation groups and fishery regulators contend something has to be done to protect the whales, which now number about 340.
A pair of sustainability organizations, Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch, have withdrawn certifications for Gulf of Maine lobster because of concerns about whales, and supermarket giant Whole Foods pulled lobster from its stores, including one in Portland.