A lobster fishing boat travels out of Portland harbor at dawn, Friday, June 10, 2022, in Portland, Maine. Last year state's lobster industry set a record with $725 million for the total value of lobsters at the docks. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Maine’s congressional delegation has inserted a six-year pause on new regulations intended to protect endangered right whales into a key federal spending package as it seeks to safeguard a lobster industry that says it is under siege.

The provision will help a vital Maine industry that had been hit with too many regulations despite its lack of threat to the endangered whales, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden and Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement.

“Without our provision, Maine’s iconic industry could be facing a complete shutdown — and the ripple effects across our state would have been widespread,” they said.

The late-breaking move comes just days before Congress is expected to approve a massive $1.7 trillion spending bill. Conservation groups that have squared off with Maine and the industry were angered by the move, which they warned would place the right whale at risk of extinction and set a precedent for Congress to discard environmental protections in the future.

The efforts came as debate and controversy around right whale conservation reached a fever pitch in Maine, gaining notice more recently due to Whole Foods’ decision to stop selling Maine lobster and President Joe Biden serving lobster from the state at the White House as his Department of Commerce pushes regulations that the industry opposes.

Known as a policy rider, the delegation placed the provision in the bill that will fund the federal government through the end of September 2023. It is accompanied by other far-reaching provisions, including $858 billion in defense spending and Electoral College reforms championed by Collins, a Republican, and King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

If passed, the language would effectively dampen the results of a federal court decision this year that said the federal government wasn’t doing enough to help right whales. It would also provide millions to help the industry adapt to regulations that may be imposed later on.

Those funds are “much-needed” and would allow the process to be driven by science instead of lobbying, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, who praised the “extraordinary efforts” of Mills and the delegation.

But nearly 100 groups, primarily those dealing with the environment and animal rights, sent a letter Monday expressing “strong opposition” to congressional leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York.

One of them, the Center for Biological Diversity, castigated Schumer for allowing the rider, calling him and another leader “extinction Democrats” who gave in to special interests.The Conservation Law Foundation, which is part of the lawsuit against the state, said anyone who voted for the bill had the “blood of a magnificent endangered species on their hands.”

“Sneaking this move into a spending bill is a profound and disturbing end run around the legal system,” Erica Fuller, a senior attorney for the group, said in a statement.

McCarron called claims by environmentalists that the rider would lead the right whale to go extinct untrue, saying that the allegation was “meant to serve only their fringe interests.”