Gov. Janet Mills, left, Sen. Susan Collins, center, and Sen. Angus King, right, sit at the unveiling of a Nautilus Data Technologies' data center at the site of the former Great Northern Maine Paper Company mill. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Gov. Janet Mills and Maine’s congressional delegation blasted the California group that “red-listed” lobster in a Friday letter that accused it of a “baseless smear” and demanded the designation be overturned.

The letter aggressively defended the state’s biggest fishery and perhaps its most culturally important industry after lobsters landed this week on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Seafood Watch” red list of fisheries to avoid, citing risks that lobstering poses to endangered North Atlantic right whales. Some retailers have stopped offering lobster in response.

It is an extension of the fight over right whale protections between federal regulators and the industry, though a Maine lobster line has not been linked to an entanglement in roughly 20 years. The seasonal closure of a 967-square-mile fishing ground off the Maine coast was upheld by a judge last year and lobstermen have also made gear changes to comply with new rules.

The Seafood Watch listing led to a broadside to the aquarium from the Democratic governor and the congressional delegation, who called it “among most irresponsible actions we have ever seen in our years of public service” and founded on a “baseless smear.”

“Each day which goes by with this designation in effect compounds the damage to the lobster industry and the good people of Maine,” they said.

The Seafood Watch designation said lobstering regulations “do not go far enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the species.”

The show of unity from Mills, Republican Sen. Susan Collins, independent Sen. Angus King and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District, shows the political perch that the industry has in Maine, where the 2021 catch was valued at a record $725 million last year in a bounceback from the early part of COVID-19 pandemic.

But the industry faces threats, including the federal regulations, increasing costs and inflation, trade issues and a Gulf of Maine warming faster than virtually all the world’s oceans. 

Lobstermen protested last year against Mills’ support for offshore wind projects, leading the governor and Legislature to compromise on a ban in state waters. Those issues are part of Mills and Golden’s reelection campaigns as they take on former Gov. Paul LePage and former Rep. Bruce Poliquin, both Republicans accusing the Democrats of hypocrisy.

Both Golden and Mills have been supported in the past by the League of Conservation Voters, which has backed restrictions aiming to help the right whale. It spent nearly $360,000 to boost Golden in 2018. Poliquin also flagged the incumbent’s support of the Inflation Reduction Act, which sent $3 billion to the federal agency enforcing restrictions.

“Now more than ever our lobster industry needs a steady, proven ally,” LePage said in a statement this week. 

But all of that demands key context. First, the League of Conservation Voters last scored lawmakers on this issue in 2019, when it dinged those who sponsored a measure to block right whale restrictions. The chief sponsor was Golden. Last year, the league donated to Golden but later said it would only support candidates that voted for President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which Golden opposed.

Lawmakers have also sent billions to NOAA on a bipartisan basis, including in the recent infrastructure bill championed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Funding the agency has never been a red line for the Maine delegation even while fighting the federal government.

And when LePage supported offshore oil drilling in 2018, Poliquin, lobstering groups and environmentalists opposed it, underscoring long-held tension about energy ideas and the alliances that come and go around the iconic industry.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...