KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Here on the Maine coast, lobstering is vital. Many lobstermen feel that Gov. Janet Mills isn’t doing enough to defend their livelihood.
Mills has been a strong advocate for the lobster industry in its fight against new federal restrictions. But it is her support for offshore wind projects in federal waters on the minds of fishermen as she and the Biden administration plan to expand offshore wind power to the Gulf of Maine, something her 2022 opponent, former Gov. Paul LePage, has long opposed.
Polling has shown the Democratic governor ahead of LePage, but there are signs of danger. Mills was heckled at a meeting with federal regulators that she helped organize. Members of the congressional delegation who have talked positively in the past about offshore wind development here are being more cautious.
“I won’t support moving forward with any project that doesn’t have the support of our fishing communities,” U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from Maine’s 2nd District in a tough reelection race with former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, said in a statement.
There are only about 4,500 lobstermen in Maine. But thousands more work in jobs supported by the industry. Concern about offshore wind has developed while the fight over lobstering rules has heightened, blending two issues that may have otherwise been considered separately.
Many lobstermen could have been voting for LePage anyway. Ray Wilson, 30, of Arundel was on Cape Porpoise on Thursday with a tuna tail in one hand and a lunchbox in the other with a sticker reading “Let’s Go Brandon” — a slogan denigrating Biden.
Wilson gave Mills some praise, saying she did a “nice job” in her speech at the Portland meeting. But he is voting for LePage, citing Mills’ support for offshore wind and saying she should have been out front on issues with federal regulators earlier. He believes that between 80 percent and 90 percent of lobstermen will vote for LePage.
“They’re trying to shut us down,” Wilson said. “We’re facing that and it’s scary. I’d like to see a little bit more attention to us.”
The rules targeting the lobster industry have long been in the works. Maine political leaders, including Mills and LePage, vowed in 2019 to bring them to then-President Donald Trump’s attention. Trump was told about them during a visit to Bangor the following year, opening trade offset aid to fishermen but never acting on rules aimed at protecting endangered whales.
Mills has fought the Trump and Biden administrations on the rules, including as an intervenor in the court case on them, spokesperson Lindsay Crete noted. Republicans including LePage have criticized the state for not leading its own lawsuit on the matter and linked Mills and Golden with groups that have lined up against the industry.
On offshore wind, Crete said Mills will always fight to protect the industry from ill effects, noting her signing of a 2021 bill that prohibits turbines in state waters, where most lobstering takes place. She also wants the federal government to proceed cautiously on commercial leases, follow the state’s lead on research and to listen to the fishermen, Crete said.
That bill came after lobstermen started to organize against an offshore wind push, however. Fishermen protested her in April 2021 after her administration advanced plans for a 12-turbine test project and tension around a test project led in part by the University of Maine.
Many lobstermen hold populist attitudes, saying that the working class is being pitted against moneyed interests looking to make it in the renewable energy business.
Julian Zuke, 27, of Arundel, who said he had been lobstering since he was 12, felt LePage would work far harder to fight federal regulators, saying that Mills had only “written letters” and said how awful she felt about the new regulations.
“We’re the little guys they want to get out of the way so they can fill the ocean with oil platforms and wind turbines,” Zuke said.
That idea was indulged by LePage and Golden at last week’s meeting. After the representative said regulators are being controlled by “a coalition of environmentalists and conservationists backed by their millionaire and billionaire donors,” the former governor agreed with Golden and blamed the rule fight on “environmental groups and wind people.”
Both of them will speak at a Wednesday rally organized by the Maine Lobstering Union and conservative radio host Ray Richardson.
In Kennebunkport, lobstermen’s views could be nuanced, acknowledging Mills had provided some support for the industry. But given the divisive offshore wind issue, they said they have a better chance with LePage. Many noted the symbolic importance of their industry.
Maine’s congressional delegation has long spurred offshore wind development at UMaine. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, has been a key figure in it for more than a decade. Poliquin, also a Republican, helped it win federal funding in 2015. The current delegation said it was “proud of the project’s progress” in 2020 after the launching of a $100 million private partnership.
Members are a bit more cautious now. Collins and King said through spokespeople that “rigorous research” is needed before federal turbines are deployed. Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District said she supports the ban on offshore wind in state waters and she was following the UMaine project that could show the effect of turbines on fishing.
Seeing the stakes as high, it is certain that lobstermen will vote and pay close attention to the results no matter who they support.
“The only way we can beat this is politics,” Wilson said.