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.
A long Wednesday hearing in Portland allowed politicians and lobstermen to beat up on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that probably has the lowest approval rating in Maine right now.
Officially, the meeting was held to get public comments on ways to reduce the hazards for right whales in the Gulf of Maine. The burden of those rules is set to fall hard on the iconic lobster industry after a federal judge’s ruling earlier this month to uphold fishing restrictions that prompt worry along the coast.
All of Maine’s big-name politicians oppose those rules and have long been fighting them. But this is the political season and Republicans are still trying to make the issue into a big one for Gov. Janet Mills and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of the 2nd District. The NOAA meeting showed the success they are having on one front, but maybe not as much on the other.
The video from the Mills was heckled by lobstermen at the beginning of her remarks as she noted her role in setting the meeting up. She said she cares more about reducing the economic risk to Maine families than the risk to the whales.
“If the law doesn’t require that balancing, then the law should be changed,” she said to some applause.
By contrast, former Gov. Paul LePage got a big round of applause before he used his speech to hammer offshore wind plans for the Gulf of Maine that have long been supported by Mills and were protested by fishermen last year.
The backlash led the governor to sign a law permanently banning such projects in state waters, but a test project moving forward in federal waters is still viewed with suspicion by many lobstermen. That would be 30 miles offshore. LePage, the Republican running against Mills in the November election, has said it should be at least 40 miles away.
But some of his more interesting comments touched on Golden, who is dealing with lobstering in his reelection campaign against former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin. The Republican has hit the Democratic incumbent for a 2020 contribution from the head of the organization that recently “red-listed” the lobster as unsustainable. Democrats fired back, noting Poliquin has gotten money linked to companies that donated to the group.
Golden gave fiery remarks in Portland on Wednesday, saying the “NOAA bureaucrats sitting before you are not running this operation,” singling out the groups that have sued the federal government over whale protections, including the Conservation Law Foundation.
“They are supposed to be in charge, but in this case, we all know they are being controlled by a coalition of environmentalists and conservationists backed by their millionaire and billionaire donors and giant corporations that want the optics of philanthropic giving and a tax break to boot,” he said.
When LePage got up, he said Golden “hit it on the head” and the fight over the rules is being “funded by environmental groups and wind people.”
There is a lot to unpack here. One, the congressional delegation has long secured funding and said nice things about a University of Maine test offshore wind project from Poliquin helping secure funding for it in 2015 to when Golden and the delegation hailed the public-private partnership in 2020.
Golden and LePage have accepted invitations to a Portland rally next week led by the Maine Lobstering Union, according to Island Ad-Vantages. Also there will be Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, a lobsterman who recently appeared in a Poliquin ad against Golden. That tells you something about the alliances forming here.
Offshore wind seems to be the issue sticking to Mills right now while she agrees with others on everything else regarding the lobster. That is the peril of being the governor and a driving force behind projects that the congressional delegation can take more passive roles in.