Story at a glance
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had scheduled a federal ban on lobstering in a section of the Gulf of Maine to protect right whales.
- The North Atlantic right whale population dropped 8 percent in 2020, marking the lowest number for the species in nearly 20 years.
- A district judge took issue with the statistical modeling NOAA used to project the damage fisherman’s equipment causes to marine life.
A judge ruled in favor of Maine’s multimillion-dollar lobster industry, pushing back on efforts to protect endangered species and limit how much fisherman can capture marine life.
The seafood industry is a huge part of Maine’s economy; in 2018 the state’s lobster fishery alone was valued at more than $400 million and brought in approximately 119 million pounds of lobster. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), American lobster was the most valuable single species harvested in the U.S.
But all that harvesting has affected marine life. The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) announced in October that the North Atlantic right whale population dropped to 336 in 2020, an 8 percent decrease from 2019. The group said 2020 was the lowest number for the species in nearly 20 years.
The federal government had attempted to protect endangered right whales, with Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo authorizing a partial closure of a fishing zone along the Maine coast that would have prohibited the use of buoy lines that many marine life are hurt or killed by. It was intended to restrict commercial lobster fishing for four months and was the first step in a 10-year plan to protect North Atlantic right whales.
However a federal judge temporarily blocked the impending rules, questioning the federal statistical models used to assess the risk level of whales getting caught in lobster fishing equipment.
In the injunction, district judge Lance E. Walker wrote, “Though it collects many entanglements and vessel strikes involving right whales, there is no known incident within LMA 1,” referencing the zone off Maine’s coast that Raimondo was attempting to target.
An advocate for the lobstering industry, Virginia Olsen of the Maine Lobstering Union, said, “We felt like this was a step that was going to hurt our fishery, our communities. What we needed as fishermen was some validation that what we were doing was actually in the best interest of the right whale … and we didn’t feel like the seasonal closure was that right step,” according to The Guardian.
However, whale advocates say that human impacts, specifically entanglements in fixed fishing gear and vessel strikes remain the biggest threat to the survival of North Atlantic right whales.
Scott Kraus, chair of NARWC, said in a statement that though the North Atlantic right whales have suffered a population decline, it is reversible with the right action.
“No one engaged in right whale work believes that the species cannot recover from this. They absolutely can, if we stop killing them and allow them to allocate energy to finding food, mates, and habitats that aren’t marred with deadly obstacles,” said Kraus.
However, according to Maine local media, NOAA has appealed Walker’s injunction.
READ MORE STORIES FROM CHANGING AMERICA