Lobstermen stand on Widgery Wharf in Portland on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 during a press conference held by the Maine Lobstermen's Association. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s state government might set up a $30 million annual fund to help lobster harvesters and other commercial fishermen who have been economically hurt by new rules designed to protect rare whales.

New federal rules make an approximately 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine essentially off limits to lobster fishing from October to January. Federal authorities implemented the rules to try to help save North Atlantic right whales, which are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear and number less than 340.

Maine is by far the most significant lobster fishing state in the country, and members of the state’s industry have warned they will suffer because of the new rules. A proposal from Democratic Rep. Holly Stover of Boothbay would create the fund, which would provide grants for lobster fishermen as well as some fishermen who harvest other species with gillnets.

Stover said the proposal is about protecting an industry that is central to Maine’s economy and cultural identity. It’s up for a public hearing before a committee of the Maine Legislature on Tuesday.

“The lobster industry is an economic driver of our local economy, hands down,” Stover said. “This is not a fisheries disaster, this is an economic disaster.”

The Maine Department of Marine Resources would administer the new fund. Stover said the money could be used for necessities such as mortgage and boat payments and to buy new gear needed to comply with the whale rules, which include a host of new restrictions on trapping lobsters off New England.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which is the largest commercial fishing industry group on the East Coast, is tracking the bill and plans to testify Tuesday, said executive director Patrice McCarron. The group believes the Legislature is “recognizing that the lobster industry is being hit hard by the whale rules,” she said.

The new whale rules have been the subject of legal challenges. A U.S. appeals court reinstated the ban on harvesting in hundreds of miles of ocean in November after a lower court had granted emergency relief to stop the closure.

The rules are intended to help the whales in a time when they are suffering high mortality and poor reproduction. The whales were decimated during the commercial whaling era and have been a protected species for decades.

Story by Patrick Whittle