Gov. Janet Mills poses with Greenhead Lobster CFO Bane Jovanovic, right, and plant manager John Steeves, left, after a tour on Oct. 14, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of Gov. Janet Mills' Office

Gov. Janet Mills said Friday that the state could consider pushing for changes to federal protections for whales in order to ease the regulatory burden on lobstermen.

The state’s lobster industry is facing expected new regulations designed to safeguard the endangered right whale. Lobstermen say the potential rules unfairly target them and could devastate fishing communities up and down the coast.

The state is currently involved as an intervenor in a pair of lawsuits in a D.C. federal court over the fishery’s management in an attempt to shield the industry from the changes. While some have suggested that Maine should file its own lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Mills raised the idea of trying to change the laws at the heart of the legal battles.

“Worse comes to worst, we’re going to propose an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act to unclaw the hold that the federal court seems to have on the fishing industry right this minute,” she said Friday.

The comment came at the end of a tour at a pair of seafood processing facilities in Bucksport. Mills walked through the Pemaquid Mussel Farms and Greenhead Lobster plants to see how the companies had used state aid money to bolster the processing and dealer side of the seafood industry.

“It reinvigorates my support for the lobster industry,” Mills said after seeing the state-of-the-art Greenhead facility, which recently received $495,000 from the $15 million state fund. “The lobster fishermen, the processors, the dealers, marketers, on all counts. That’s why we are in two major lawsuits in federal court in DC to support the lobstermen.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act is one of several federal regulations that conservation groups have sued over in recent years. A federal judge found that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had been violating the act with its current management of the lobster fishery and determined the agency was not doing enough to protect whales.

The state of Maine can’t change the federal laws, but can push for its congressional delegation to attempt amendments. The prospect would likely be met with bitter opposition from conservation groups.

NOAA is currently under the gun to come up with new ways to cut down the risk that lobstering poses to right whales. The whales can get entangled in fishing lines and currently have a population of fewer than 350.

Bane Jovanovic, Greenhead’s chief financial officer, said he thinks Maine officials are on the same page in the fight to protect the industry. The other main issue that the processing plants face is getting enough people to work in plants that prepare fresh and frozen lobster to be shipped across the country.

The funding the company got earlier this year made it easier to handle the 40,000 pounds of lobster that can go through the facility in a day with the workers they had, Jovanovic said.