Lobsters await shipping at a wholesale distributer, March 13, 2020, in Arundel, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — A key legislative committee in Maine put off a potential vote on a proposal to create a legal defense fund to fight new fishing restrictions on Tuesday.

The plan would launch the defense fund to help the lobster industry navigate the new rules, laws and regulations that are designed to protect a declining species of whale. The Maine Legislature’s Committee on Marine Resources on Tuesday voted to table the proposal to a future meeting.

Some members of the committee and the lobster industry balked at the idea, in part because it would redirect fees and surcharges the state currently uses to manage the lobster fishing industry. Maine’s lobster industry is by far the largest in the U.S.

But Republican Rep. William Faulkingham, a commercial lobsterman himself and the sponsor of the bill to create the legal fund, said the industry will need money to win court challenges against new fishing restrictions.

“That’s what this bill provides — an annual source of reliable revenue to fight these legal fees,” Faulkingham said. “We’re looking at a decade of fighting these regulations.”

The right whales number less than 340 and are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear. They’re also at risk of collisions with large ships. Their populations have declined in recent years, and they’ve also suffered poor reproduction.

The legal defense fund proposal stated that it would be funded with money from license surcharges and the sale of lobster trap tags.

Another proposal before the committee would create a $30 million fund to support fishermen financially and help them adapt to the new whale rules. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has backed that proposal. The money could be used for necessities such as boat payments in a time when the industry faces financial hardship.

Both proposals would ultimately need the approval of the full Maine Legislature.

The Maine lobster industry set a record for value in 2021. The state also recorded more than 100 million pounds of lobster at the docks after falling short of that mark in 2020.

By Patrick Whittle, Associated Press