A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
As the old idiom goes, motherhood and apple pie are two things just about Americans can agree on. In Maine politics, lobster would be on the corresponding short list.
That explains why politicians here are rushing to denounce the latest attack on the industry, a “red-listing” of lobster by a California aquarium that keeps a list of seafood that it says retailers should avoid. It is an extension of the battle between Maine lobstermen and federal regulators over regulations aimed at aiding the endangered right whale.
Both the industry and politicians here have been on the losing end of a legal battle over those regulations in recent months, leading to the seasonal closure of a large fishing ground last year and gear changes. While entanglements pose a threat to the species, no Maine lobster lines have been linked to one in roughly 20 years.
Apoplectic officials have issued a deluge of statements since then, capped by a broadside to the aquarium from Gov. Janet Mills and the congressional delegation on Friday accusing it of a “baseless smear” of the industry and demanding the red-listing be overturned after it prompted some retailers to pull lobster from menus.
Mills and independent Sen. Angus King held a Friday news conference in Portland on the issue at which King called the aquarium an “arrogant fish zoo,” according to an NBC Boston reporter. While Mills and the delegation have spoken with one voice this week on the fight against federal regulations, there have been some important political differences on issues facing the industry.
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. It said Friday that it is not advocating for restrictions now.
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.
On Friday, Golden responded to a court decision upholding federal restrictions by saying the judge “a dangerous precedent that could further open the floodgates for environmental groups seeking to continue to abuse the court system to put fishermen out of business.”
It was another example of what you will see over the next few days, with politicians saying largely the same things on lobstering issues. But it is not going to stop the campaign arguments.