Lobster fishers ask Supreme Court to halt restrictions meant to protect whales

A lobster fishers’ union and two lobster fishing companies have asked the Supreme Court to halt the closure of fishing grounds off Maine intended to protect an endangered whale species.

The protections in question restrict the use of lobster traps in nearly 1,000 square miles in the Gulf of Maine between October and January. They are intended to protect the North Atlantic right whale, which are believed to number fewer than 400. The species is vulnerable to becoming tangled in nets or colliding with boats.

In the emergency application, the union and fishing companies said the restrictions would curtail fishing by more than 100 of the state’s “largest and most productive” boats, many of which only fish in the restricted area.

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“These fishermen and their communities have no other means to make a living except by fishing in these waters during this specific time of year, and even the loss of one season will see their vessels repossessed and their gear obsolete due to changing regulations with no funds to update them,” the application states.

It further argues that groundfishers from elsewhere, who are permitted to keep up to 100 lobsters a day caught as incidental bycatch, are “almost certain to infiltrate” the restricted waters.

“By February, Maine fishermen will return to the … Restricted Area only to find their harvest depleted and their fishing grounds accosted, if they are able to return at all,” it states.

In addition to the union, petitioners include the Damon Family Lobster Company, the Fox Island Lobster Company and lobsterman Frank Thompson.

In November, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the restrictions, saying the federal government has a “congressionally assigned task of assuring the right whales are protected from a critical risk of death.” This followed an earlier district court ruling that sided with lobstermen, saying the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had “markedly thin” evidence of the presence of the whales.