Lobstermen attend a rally to protest Maine Gov. Janet Mills' support for offshore wind projects Wednesday in Augusta. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

AUGUSTA, Maine — Ongoing friction between fishing interests and Gov. Janet Mills is shaping up to be a major battle in next year’s gubernatorial race as the incumbent’s opponents look to leverage frustration with her long-term offshore wind plan.

Lobstering supporters turned out in droves on Wednesday morning to protest the Mills administration, with people selling T-shirts and water bottles and carrying signs depicting a lobster claw crushing a windmill. A group of attendees laid ropes to illustrate how much space a turbine’s equipment would occupy.

Tensions between Mills and the industry have been steadily rising during her tenure on the issue. A survey boat for the New England Aqua Ventus wind project accused fishing boats of blocking its work this spring. Another 12-turbine research array is planned in the Gulf of Maine. Industry members seem frustrated by Mills’ stance on both projects. It could prove to be a challenge for Mills next year as former Gov. Paul LePage eyes a comeback campaign.

“They’re selling this on jobs, and they’re selling this on saving the environment,” said Julie Rabinowitz, the executive director for Maine People Before Politics, who appeared as a proxy for LePage. “We know they don’t know anything on how it affects our marine ecosystem.”

The event initially looked bipartisan, with Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District, billed alongside Republican lawmakers and LePage’s representative. But neither Jackson nor Golden attended, with the congressman’s office saying he had prior commitments and the top legislator presiding over the Senate, which reconvened on Wednesday.

One of the event organizers, Maine Lobstering Union board member Virginia Olsen, said both Democrats had indicated support for their efforts. But Golden’s office did not comment on his position and Jackson released a statement saying the state needs to find a solution protecting the lobstering industry “while also supporting good-paying, clean energy jobs.”

The congressman has been generally supportive of the lobstering industry. He cosponsored an amendment with U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District to block changes that would require lobster boats to reduce vertical lines. He and the rest of Maine’s congressional delegation have also been skeptical that proposed federal regulations on lobster boats will protect endangered right whales.

Mills has tried to allay concerns by introducing a 10-year moratorium on new offshore wind projects in state waters. Protesters at the rally largely backed a countering bill from Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, which would ban any offshore wind projects altogether.

Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said Mills’ bill would keep wind development out of the majority of the waters where lobstering occurs and said the proposed research array provides a “measured” approach to understanding wind project effects. The governor is not focused on her reelection campaign, but “doing what is right for Maine — and nothing else,” Crete said.

But protestors worried that any future project would endanger the industry by limiting their fishing grounds and introducing metal into the ecosystem.

The families of Arlene Joyce of Deer Isle and Tammy Kelly of Stonington operate a lobstering boat together. But they said offshore wind would harm their communities, affecting everyone from the bait people they work with to the grocery stores they visit.

Joyce said she previously voted for Mills because she wanted a change in government. But she was not satisfied with Mills’ moratorium and said the issue was important enough for her to not vote for Mills again. Kelly said she had not registered to vote for years but would register to vote against Mills specifically because of this issue.

“I thought she was promising but she has been all promises and no action,” Joyce said.