A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.
A year of peril and political wrangling for the lobster industry is ending with a major breakthrough.
Maine’s congressional delegation tucked a six-year pause on right-whale regulations and potentially hundreds of millions in funding for fishing gear and research on risk to whales into a spending bill set to pass this week. While it is only a pause and the omnibus spending bill is not final yet, it is already sharply shifting the political dialogue on the iconic fishery.
Gov. Janet Mills and members of the delegation held a news conference on Wednesday, where they detailed behind-the-scenes aspects of the deal, including a 3:30 a.m. call between U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, talks with the top congressional Democrats and coordination with the state to effectively subvert court decisions against the industry this year.
The coordinated effort from Maine’s big-name politicians underscored the unity around the industry. It is nothing new in a state where the fishery looms so large culturally, but it was also a far cry from where the dialogue was during the 2022 election campaign.
Mills was jeered at a public meeting by lobstermen, many of whom are mad at her over her support of offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine. U.S. Rep. Jared Golden of Maine’s 2nd District was attacked on lobster issues by former U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin.
But none of this amounted to much come Election Day. The two Democratic incumbents fared better than many expected in key lobstering areas on their way to pretty comfortable victories. Aside from partisans like House Minority Leader Billy Bob Faulkingham, R-Winter Harbor, who appeared in a Poliquin ad against Golden, industry members largely stayed out of the fray as Mills and the delegation took up their cause against the federal rules.
That bore fruit after Election Day, but the deal will not end all of the fighting over the industry. Any long-term solution to further rules may lie in amending the Marine Mammal Protection Act, one of the key laws that has led to the federal government advancing rules aimed at protecting whales even though no entanglements have been linked to Maine fishing gear for decades. Conservation groups opposed this deal and would work hard against that.
Minority Republicans in the Legislature are already pushing efforts to end limited state tax breaks that go to retail stores for Whole Foods after it dropped Maine lobster due to the species losing a third-party sustainability certification over purported risks to whales. At a recent protest, some also raised the idea of the state investigating groups critical of the industry.
It will be easy for lawmakers of both parties to pile onto Whole Foods, though the tax breaks are small potatoes for the Amazon-owned grocery giant with just one Maine store in the heart of Portland. The call for state investigations may be more provocative. Offshore wind still looms large, but the conversation for now will be less existential than in the recent past.