PORTLAND, Maine — A federal circuit court has reinstated a ban on lobster fishing gear in a nearly 1,000-square-mile area off New England to try to protect endangered whales.
The National Marine Fisheries Service issued new regulations last year that prohibited lobster fishing with vertical buoy lines in part of the fall and winter in the area, which is in federal waters off Maine's coast. The ruling was intended to prevent North Atlantic right whales, which number less than 340, from becoming entangled in the lines.
The U.S. District Court for the District of Maine issued a preliminary injunction to halt enforcement of the rules. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston vacated that ruling Tuesday.
The circuit court sent the case back to the district court level, but noted in its ruling that it does not think the lobster fishing groups that sued to stop the regulations are likely to succeed because Congress has clearly instructed the fisheries service to protect the whales.
“Although this does not mean the balance will always come out on the side of an endangered marine mammal, it does leave plaintiffs beating against the tide, with no more success than they had before,” the court ruled.
Maine's lobster fishers are calling this another blow that is unjustified.
"It is total unjustified federal overreach, is what it is, and there is no reason for it," Matt Donnell said.
Donnell is a York lobsterman who has been on the water since he was a teen. He became a captain in 2014 after a brief fishing hiatus.
"I've figured it was coming and I have been reading about it quite a bit... it was pretty well expected for me — once they get a closure they're going to keep enforcing it and implementing it," Donnell said.
Donnell said the closure for 1,000 offshore square miles will hurt every lobsterman's income.
"It's huge. Its going to force a lot of offshore guys inshore, congest a lot of gear. The lobster industry is self regulated... its going to cut the pie for that much more," Donnell said.
The ruling was the second by a federal court in favor of right whale protection in the past week. A U.S. District judge ruled last week that the federal government hasn’t done enough to protect the whales from entanglement in lobster fishing gear, which can be lethal, and new rules are needed to protect the species from extinction.
The whales feed off New England and Canada and migrate to waters off Georgia and Florida to give birth. They were decimated during the commercial whaling era and are vulnerable to entanglement in gear and collisions with ships.
Commercial fishing groups have filed lawsuits about new rules designed to protect the whales because of concerns that the regulations will make it impossible to sustain the lobster fishing industry. The industry, based mostly in Maine, is one of the most valuable in the U.S., worth more than $500 million at the docks in 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Maine's local and state leaders poured letters of support in favor of lobstermen.
Patrick Keliher from the Maine Department of Marine Resources said the reinstatement of the ban was expected, but his office will focus "on ensuring the best possible outcome for Maine's lobster industry as that legal battle continues," he said in a statement.
Governor Janet Mills, Senators Susan Collins, and Angus King, along with Representatives Jared Golden and Chellie Pingree issued a joint statement in support of lobster fishers.
"Once again, Maine’s lobstermen have been unfairly targeted by a misguided court decision. Today’s ruling fails to acknowledge the substantial steps that Maine’s lobster industry has already taken to comply with gear change rules to protect the North Atlantic Right Whale. We are deeply disappointed and will continue to strongly advocate for our state’s lobster industry," the statement read.
And Bruce Poliquin, a Republican looking to unseat Jared Golden in November, issued a statement saying Maine's lobstermen are proven to be sustainable, and current political leaders aren't prioritizing industry efforts.
"Biden pushed to fast-track permitting for windmills in our prized offshore fishery but [our] lobstermen and women aren't allowed to safely harvest their treasured catch," Poliquin said, in a statement.
Conservation groups have called for tighter laws. Tuesday's ruling is “a lifesaving decision for these beautiful, vulnerable whales,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity who argued the case at the circuit court, said.
Jane Davenport, a senior attorney with the Defenders for Wildlife, said future technologies are the only way for lobstermen and whales to coexist without the risk of entanglement.
“To avoid the disruption of seasonal closures and save the right whale from extinction, the best path toward coexistence is to develop and deploy innovative fishing technologies that get ropes out of the water column while right whales are present," Davenport wrote in the same statement as Monsell.