Lobstermen work off the coast of Kennebunkport on Sept. 8. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

At 3:30 a.m. Monday, U.S. Sen. Angus King called U.S. Sen. Susan Collins about last-minute steps to protect Maine’s lobster industry.

That was one of the final steps in what Collins called the “hard-fought battle” to get a six-year pause on new regulations included in a federal spending bill, plus up to $500 million more in aid for the industry over 10 years to help fishermen comply with protections for endangered whales that could come after the pause is over.

Collins and King, the rest of Maine’s congressional delegation and Gov. Janet Mills told reporters Wednesday that years of work against those long-developing regulations culminated in weeks of careful negotiations with congressional leaders and the White House.  

It may be among the largest breakthroughs a Maine industry has seen at the federal level in years. In her career, Collins, who is set to become the No. 1 Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she had neither seen such a flagrant federal overreach nor seen Maine’s politically diverse delegation work as one so powerfully.

“We were all working the phones together,” said U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District. “It was just a very rewarding result.”

While the delegation, Mills and former Gov. Paul LePage had lobbied different federal officials on this for years, recent events precipitated the move, which amounted to an end run around a lawsuit from conservation groups. The groups alleged the federal government was not doing enough to protect endangered right whales and were apoplectic about the deal announced this week.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association and the state have been involved in that court battle and were dealt a blow in September when a federal judge upheld the whale rules. The industry began preparing an appeal with state aid. In November, a judge issued a two-year extension in November to give the parties time to develop rules aimed at reducing entanglement risks.

Golden said the industry was at a “crisis point.” King gave a floor speech Tuesday calling the new rules an “economic death sentence” for the fishery and told reporters Wednesday that the new ruling gave the delegation “a matter of weeks” to work out the issues.

“This was the only vehicle, the omnibus spending bill, that we could identify as a way to get this pause in the regulations for six years,” Collins said.

In their way were the environmental groups who have decried the rider, arguing it could lead to the right whale’s ultimate extinction. One of those groups extended its criticism of the deal to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and the outgoing U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who chairs the appropriations panel, calling them “extinction Democrats.”

The industry and its political allies have noted that Maine fishing gear has never been linked to a whale death. Mills, whose environmental credentials include speaking on climate change at the United Nations, said those who had pushed the regulations were “extremists” operating based on assumption and emotion.

“I saw this as a compromise for those concerned about the right whale and those who care about our fishing industry,” said Pingree, a progressive with ties to environmentalists.

Lengthy negotiations had to happen on Capitol Hill. King and Pingree described substantial talks with House and Senate leaders — led by outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, on her side and Schumer in the upper chamber, as well as work with a House committee. Each half of the delegation worked through the process in their respective chamber.

All were exuberant in a press conference Wednesday, though some were cautious given that the budget hadn’t passed yet. It is still widely expected to do so by the end of the week.

“I have all my fingers and toes crossed,” Pingree said.

Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, who oversees the NOAA federal agency that enforces regulations to protect the right whale, is aware of the provision, though members of the congressional delegation did not say if President Joe Biden was.

Pingree described the Biden administration as having tied hands due to the federal court case — only this type of congressional action like what was accomplished could alter their policy. Lobsterman Curt Brown of Cape Elizabeth was fishing two miles off the coast of his community when he joined the delegation and Mills on a virtual news conference.

“This is a great day for Maine lobster,” he said. “The future looks much brighter today than it has for a long, long time.”