The political power of lobster was on full display in Maine this week as politicians of almost every stripe scrambled to show their support for Maine’s most valuable fishery after a series of crushing setbacks in the marketplace and the federal courts.

This week, a conservation group put American lobster on its “Red List” of seafood to be avoided because it claims the fishery poses a risk to the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Also, a judge ruled against the industry’s challenge of the government’s assessment of the risk its fishing gear poses to those whales.

“This will devastate Maine lobstering,” an angry, fist-waving Gov. Janet Mills said on Friday, Sept. 9, with lobster industry leaders and U.S. Sen. Angus King by her side. She spoke to reporters from behind a lobster-trap podium in front of a buoy-laden Luke’s Lobster in Portland’s Old Port.

“These guys are fed up,” Mills said, pointing to the fishermen. “I’m fed up. We’re all fed up. The price of bait, the price of fuel, and now, these two hits in one week? It’s outrageous. There’s no balancing here, no stopping to take a look at the economic impact. It’s irresponsible.”

The first-term Democratic governor and the fishermen, policymakers and industry leaders in attendance expressed disgust at the red listing and court ruling, warning they would cripple a fishery known for its sustainable practices without proof that it had ever been responsible for a right whale death.

They tackled the details of the listing and ruling, but emotions ran especially high.

King called the facility that houses Seafood Watch – the Monterey Bay Aquarium – an irresponsible “fish zoo” and hinted that he might try to yank its federal funding in retaliation for its blatant disregard for scientific process, compassion and fair play.

Republican Paul LePage, who is running against Mills for a third non-consecutive term as governor, and the Maine Republican Party characterized Mills’ outrage as “crocodile tears.” The environmentalists that put Mills in office are responsible for pushing Maine’s lobstering industry to the brink of collapse, LePage said.

“You can’t take money from the environmental lobby and then act like you’re a friend to the lobsterman,” LePage said. “Lobster is a very important constituent. … Paul LePage will fight for the lobstermen. I will fight against the federal government. I always have, and I always will, no matter the cost.”

When asked about LePage’s criticism of her ties to the environmental community, Mills responded with an “it’s apples and oranges” retort, noting that her support for many environmental causes and support for Maine’s lobster fishermen were not mutually exclusive.

She noted that Maine lobstermen have long practiced sustainable fishing practices, some even before it was required by regulation, as a way to keep the fishery in good shape for the next generation of lobster fishermen, making them environmentalists, too.

In Maine politics, the lobster industry is imbued with immense political power — much more than is to be expected for an interest group that is limited by both its geographic footprint (the shoreline) and its size (5,000 licensed commercial fishermen).

“The lobster industry is seen as very important in Maine, and thus it is useful to candidates to be seen as supportive of lobstering,” said Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine. “In Maine, a candidate wants to win the lobster vote for sure.”

That may be because the industry earns outsized profits — $725 million in 2021 — and forms the ground floor of a $1 billion-a-year supply chain that directly employs 12,000 to 15,000 people, or about 2% of the state labor force, and indirectly underwrites much of Maine’s coastal economy.

But politicians know that lobster is also undeniably symbolic. Depending on the setting — a bait-laden lobster boat, an underwater trap or a white-cloth restaurant — lobster can symbolize Maine’s strong economy, its pristine environment or its importance in international trade circles.

For many Mainers, lobster is Maine. And consultants say many Mainers consider lobstermen colorful, larger-than-life versions of a typical blue-collar voter who is waking up early and working hard to feed their family in spite of rising prices and burdensome government regulations.

This resonates in Maine’s mill towns and farm towns, Republican political strategist Lance Dutson said.

“There’s a reason statewide candidates have filmed TV commercials on lobster boats for years,” he said.

The lobster industry is tangled up in the same environmental conflict that has consumed so many other legacy Maine industries, Dutson said. Elected officials in Maine should be rushing to protect fishermen, and some are, but it’s hard to to trust those taking money from activists that push anti-fishing policies.

“Candidates aren’t beholden to their donors, but in the emotional/symbolic world of elections, people whose livelihoods are under attack are not going to respond well to candidates who share a checkbook with their attackers,” Dutson said.

LePage believes it is the potential appeal of the lobstering message to this larger audience of blue-collar Mainers where he stands to possibly pick up votes in 2022 that he didn’t have in past elections. He said he believes he’s always had the lobster vote, while Democrats have always had the environmental vote.

Scientists believe about 335 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when it bottomed out at 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but poor calving, ship strikes and fishing entanglements, especially in Canada, sent its numbers tumbling again in 2017.

Regulators claim that even one right death whale a year could doom the species to extinction.

As a result, powerful environmental groups have gone to court to save the whales, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Conservation Law Foundation. Other environmental groups, like Oceana and the League of Conservation Voters, advocated for pro-whale legislation.

LePage pointed to a 2019 League of Conservation Voters legislative scorecard that took a dim view of federal lawmakers who supported an amendment protecting Maine lobstermen from right whale protections as proof that the League of Conservation Voters and the state chapter of Maine Conservation Voters, which both support Mills, are anti-lobster.

But Matthew Davis, senior director of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, said that assessment makes no sense — the pro-lobster amendment that got dinged on the scorecard was introduced by two Maine Democrats, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, whom LePage claims are in the environmental lobby’s pocket.

Rob Glover, associate professor of political science at University of Maine, said lobstering’s importance in Maine may compel Democrats like Mills and Golden to fight federal environmental rules that Democrats in other states might support.

But climate change, and the projected negative impact of warming waters on Maine’s lobstering future, might eventually compel Republican leaders and the generally conservative lobster vote to pursue environmental policies that Republicans in other states might oppose, Glover said.