Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have advanced restrictions on lobster gear to protect the endangered right whales.
In this June 5, 2020, file photo, Donald Trump smiles after signing an executive order on commercial fishing after speaking at a roundtable discussion with commercial fishermen at Bangor International Airport. Credit: Patrick Semansky / AP

Opposition to strict federal regulations on the lobster industry is one of the few things practically everyone in Maine politics agrees on. But this president and the last one have not responded to their pleas.

The White House’s decision to serve Maine lobster at a Thursday dinner for French President Emmanuel Macron had the effect of highlighting a lack of movement on the issue under both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, whose administrations have advanced restrictions aimed at protecting endangered right whales.

The industry is in a state-backed legal fight with the Democratic president’s administration over the rules. Federal lawmakers are eyeing changes to law governing endangered species. While industry leaders see hope that Biden’s dinner choice could signal movement, considerable frustration remains about the federal posture.

Democrats and Republicans alike have failed to get presidents from their own parties to heed their pleas about the impact of federal rules on lobstering.
In this Oct. 12, 2022, file photo, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden speaks with lobstermen at a rally on the Portland waterfront. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“The congressman and the entire congressional delegation have directly addressed both Presidents Trump and Biden about this repeatedly,” said Nick Zeller, a spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District. “Despite the delegation’s work, neither administration has come off the sidelines.”

The level to which Maine politicians were fighting for the fishery was a main theme of the 2022 election. Attention to it intensified after a judge ruled in September that the federal government’s management of the fishery was  violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, putting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the gun to reduce risk.

Mills has set aside millions to help fund an appeal. Golden and Republicans have criticized the Democrat for not having the state file its own lawsuit, something she has said would be superfluous, but she and the congressional delegation have spoken with one voice on the rules.

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have advanced restrictions on lobster gear to protect the endangered right whales.
In this Oct. 24, 2022, file photo, CBS 13 anchor Gregg Lagerquist (left) and Bangor Daily News political editor Michael Shepherd (right) watch as Gov. Janet Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage shake hands when the cameras were turned off after a televised debate in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

At an October debate between Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage, hosted by CBS 13 and the Bangor Daily News, both were asked why presidents in their parties had not heeded to their pleas.

Mills said it was her advocacy that made NOAA come to Maine for an October town hall in Portland. LePage, a Republican who chaired Trump’s 2020 Maine campaign, said “I don’t know” and blamed Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, for inattention to the matter.

But the former governor and the industry had a public audience with Trump when he spent a day in Maine in June 2020 during his reelection campaign. Though he preceded his visit by opening a marine monument southeast of Cape Cod to fishing and later offered tariff offset aid to the industry, he showed little understanding of the issue at a roundtable discussion.

At one point, Trump asked LePage while referring to fishermen, “How is the whale hurting what they are doing?” He eventually promised to find a solution as long as whales were protected.

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have advanced restrictions on lobster gear to protect the endangered right whales.
In Oct. 27, 2020, file photo, Jill Biden, the wife of President Joe Biden, speaks at a campaign rally at the Thomas Hill Standpipe in Bangor. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The industry has also made overtures to Biden. Members of the Maine Lobstering Union met with Jill Biden in Blue Hill while she campaigned for her husband there in September 2020, discussing whale regulation issues and other things, union spokesperson Virginia Olsen said.

There has been continuity between the Biden and Trump administration in part because federal laws have “clear requirements” on policies to protect right whales, argued Gib Brogan, the fisheries campaign manager at Oceana, an environmental group that has cheered decisions by vendors, including the supermarket chain Whole Foods, to stop carrying Maine lobster.

Brogan said the policies had been based around the science on the issue, something that has been hotly contested by Maine politicians and industry members because no right-whale deaths have been attributed to lobster gear. While he conceded there is no “smoking gun,” it was only in 2020 that gear was required to have state markings on it.

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have advanced restrictions on lobster gear to protect the endangered right whales.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Elizabeth McCandless arrive for the State Dinner with President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday at the White House in Washington. Credit: Susan Walsh / AP

The offices of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King noted steps the delegation has taken for years. Collins, a Republican, called on Ross to stop burdening Maine’s lobstermen during a Senate hearing in 2020. She has done the same  three  times in hearings with current Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Collins noted in a statement. Golden’s spokesperson said the representative would be open to a bill amending endangered species laws.

“We have secured millions to help Maine’s lobster industry comply with these onerous rules, and invest in accurate research about the true cause of right whale deaths,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, said in a statement.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has not requested a personal meeting with Biden, but it works with the administration through various departments and sends letters to Raimondo, a representative of the group said.

The group’s director, Patrice McCarron, has twice met with Janet Colt, NOAA’s fisheries administrator. An agency spokesperson noted that on Friday, saying it communicates frequently with state and industry officials. During those discussions, Colt told McCarron that NOAA wanted to improve their relationship with the Maine lobster industry, the association representative said.  

The White House’s top chef made a point to praise Maine lobstermen as she previewed the State Dinner menu for the press on Wednesday. Jason Joyce, a lobsterman from Swan’s Island who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention in support of Trump, said it was hypocritical for the president to serve lobster as his administration pushes policies he feels will kill one of Maine’s vital industries. But he also saw some hope in the situation.

“He knows who we are because he orders our food,” Joyce said of Biden. “I’m hoping that maybe he’ll reach out after this.”