When Congress passed a law in December that included a six-year reprieve from new federal regulations for the lobster industry, the fishery heaved a sigh of relief. But if a new bill introduced this week in the House of Representatives is approved, that relief would be short-lived.

Maine’s congressional delegation says they are committed to ensuring that doesn’t happen. 

On Monday, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, introduced The Restoring Effective Science-based Conservation Under Environmental Laws Protecting Whales Act, or the RESCUE Whales Act. If passed, the bill would repeal the protections for the lobster fishery that were included in the 2022 federal omnibus spending law

The omnibus poses an “existential threat” to the North Atlantic right whale, undermines the science-based protections of both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and ignores possible solutions like “ropeless gear,” Grijalva said in a statement.

A provision in the massive spending bill protects lobstermen for six years from rules that the industry says would decimate the state’s iconic fishery and coastal economy. The provision essentially reverses a federal court decision last summer on new lobstering regulations by preventing them from taking effect until Dec. 31, 2028.

This not only brought the fishery back into compliance with environmental laws but gives fishery officials and researchers time to study potential new types of lobster gear less likely to entangle the whales, and to learn more about them and how often they frequent Maine waters.


The law also includes up to $50 million in annual funding to study, develop and deploy the new “ropeless” fishing technology.


In a joint statement late Tuesday, the Maine delegation – Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden – said the provision was carefully designed to give lobster harvesters a lifeline while providing time to pinpoint what’s killing the right whales.

“The RESCUE Whales Act would unfairly target Maine’s lobster industry without any data or taking into account the reality in the Gulf of Maine,” the elected officials said. “We will oppose any attempts to reverse our science-based law that protects Maine’s iconic fishery and thousands of hardworking Maine families who are committed to good-faith conservation measures that actually protect right whales.”

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, decried the bill as an unjustified attack on the lobster industry by deep-pocketed advocacy organizations. She reiterated that the Maine lobster fishery has never been linked to a right whale death. 

The spending bill provision helps fund important research into how and why the right whale population is declining, and will advance gear development efforts without “needlessly eliminating” the fishery, she said. 


McCarron warned that repealing the reprieve provision could have dire effects on both sides. 

“If their unwarranted campaign to close down the lobster industry continues, both the lobster industry and the right whale population will pay the ultimate price,” she said.

Jane Davenport, senior attorney for environmental advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement Tuesday that the group was thankful for Grijalva’s “bold initiative to combat the right whale’s dire predicament.”

Taking out the December bill’s provision would go far to reverse the whale’s decline, she said. 

“The science is clear that entanglements in the U.S. lobster fishery not only kill right whales outright but impair their reproduction, pushing them ever closer to the brink of extinction,” Davenport said. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service in August 2021 approved new rules designed to protect North Atlantic right whales, whose population is rapidly declining because of low calving rates, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. The animals’ current population is fewer than 340.


The much-debated regulations for the lobster fishery have already included new gear marking mandates, reducing the number of vertical lines in the water, inserting weak points in rope and a seasonal closure of a nearly 1,000-square-mile area off the Gulf of Maine. 

The rules are the first of three phases designed to reduce the risk to the whales by 98% in 10 years, but Maine lobstermen have said that level of risk reduction will simply shift the extinction from the whales to the lobster industry. Fishermen have long contended that right whales are not in Maine waters, and there has never been a right whale death attributed to the Maine lobster industry. 

In July, a federal court ruled that the first set of regulations didn’t do enough to protect the whales, putting the fishery in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. As a result, the fishery lost two important fishery-sustainability ratings. The judge gave regulators until 2024 to implement new, more effective rules.

With the omnibus provision, that deadline was extended to 2028.

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