A Maine legislative committee rejected a bill meant to create a legal defense fund for lobster fishermen fighting against environmental regulations that activists claim will protect North Atlantic right whales. Set to take effect on May 1, new federal regulations will soon “require lobstermen in the Gulf of Maine to adopt special equipment and techniques designed to reduce mortality risk to the critically endangered right whale,” according to the Portland Press Herald. However, the industry has been pressing for a 60-day extension as it pursues legislation to create a legal defense fund to fight the regulations, arguing that it would subject them to costly burdens that may not even solve the problem of the depleted whale populations: The first phase of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s 10-year plan, released last August, adds requirements that include state-specific gear marking, weak points in rope to allow entangled whales to break free, and a 967-square-mile seasonal closure off the Maine coast to reduce risks to whales by 60 percent this year and 98 percent over 10 years. Scientists believe there are fewer than 340 right whales left worldwide, so the species has become a flashpoint among environmentalists, federal regulators and fishermen because of the whales’ tendency to become entangled in fishing gear. Maine lobstermen have long contended that they are not part of the problem. Lobstermen estimate the new rules would reinvent the entire industry, costing between $50 million to $80 million. Environmentalists have called for even tougher rules.
The proposed legislation would have created a legal defense fund for the industry through “surcharges on lobster trap tags and licenses.” Though the fund would have generated an estimated $900,000 a year in legal funds, opponents argued it would divert money away from other industry causes. “The money would be split three ways among the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Lobstering Union and Maine Department of Marine Resources,” continued the Press Herald. “The two industry groups would be reimbursed for any legal expenses incurred, and the state agency for added staffing expenses and any related legal action or research.” On Tuesday, members of the Maine Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee voted 9-4 against the legal defense fund, fearing it would create constitutional challenges. Mark Randlett, an assistant Maine attorney general, said the legal defense fund could potentially be in violation of the First Amendment by forcing a lobster fisherman into supporting a cause against their will.
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