WASHINGTON, D.C. — Maine’s congressional delegation has added a provision to the government’s massive spending bill to try to protect Maine lobstermen from federal regulation they say could sink the state’s iconic industry.

Environmental groups warn the provision would be a death sentence would for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Congress is working feverishly this week to draft and pass a set of bills, known as an omnibus, that would fund federal agencies through the next fiscal year. The legislation add-on, released publicly Tuesday, could essentially reverse a federal court decision this summer and bring the fishery back into compliance with environmental laws through 2028. Meanwhile, fishing officials and researchers would study potential new types of lobster gear less likely to entangle the whales, and try to learn more about them and how much they frequent Maine waters.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in August 2021 approved new rules designed to protect the right whales, which are thought to number fewer than 340.

The much-debated new regulations include new gear marking mandates, a reduction of vertical lines in the water, the insertion of weak points in rope and a seasonal closure of a nearly 1,000-mile stretch 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.

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

In a joint statement Tuesday, the delegation — Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden — and Gov. Janet Mills said the provision will enable the lobster fishery to operate while still complying with National Marine Fisheries Service’s most recent requirements for protecting the right whale.

“Without our provision, Maine’s iconic industry could be facing a complete shutdown — and the ripple effects across our state would have been widespread,” they said in a statement.

The industry has been committed to sustainability for decades, and has invested in numerous measures to protect the whales, including removing more than 30,000 miles of line from the water and switching to weaker rope for lobstering lines, the lawmakers added.

“We know the right whale population can be protected along with a thriving fishery because Maine lobstermen are already doing it.”

Further regulations, which they call “punitive,” would not only fail to meaningfully protect the whales, but will also threaten the livelihoods of thousands of Maine families and small businesses, they said. Maine has about 5,000 commercial lobster harvesters.

The provision would pump up to $50 million annually into studying, developing and deploying a controversial new fishing technology known as ropeless fishing. Environmental groups have been pushing ropeless gear as a solution to help right whales by keeping vertical buoy lines out of the water. But Maine fishery officials have pushed back, arguing that the nascent technology is not ready to be used on a commercial scale.

An end run?

Erica Fuller, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said in a phone interview Tuesday that while $50 million may seem like a lot, only $20 million — “a drop in the bucket” — has been appropriated.

Fuller criticized the provision, which she said makes any law subject to overreach by Congress.

“It’s an end run around the legal system,” she said. “It’s a last-minute move by Maine politicians for a species that’s facing extinction.”

Fuller, who said in a statement that the politicians who voted for the amendment have “the blood of a magnificent endangered species on their hands,” said six more years without stronger protections means the species will continue to decline.

It’s not necessarily a direct order for extinction, she said, but six more years of dangerous and even lethal entanglements is bad news for the whales.

In order for the species to survive, roughly 50 calves need to be born each year, she said, but even the nonlethal entanglements are affecting females’ ability to breed. Last year, there were 18 calves born. This year, there were 15.

Fuller stressed that she and other environmentalists are not pushing to close the lobster fishery.

“We deeply want both the right whales and the fishing industry to survive,” she said. “In order for both (to happen), we need the fishery to transition to this new technology.”

She encouraged legislators to “do everything in their power” to make sure the full $50 million is appropriated and used.

The bill rider would also commission a “continuous plankton recorder survey” to help federal fishery management officials and marine biologists better understand where the whales are congregating to feed and to coordinate with the Canadian government to develop a “transboundary understanding” of plankton abundance and distribution. The provision also directs the National Marine Fisheries Service to submit an annual report to Congress on the status of right whales, including the “amount of serious injury and mortality by fishery and country.”