Court reinstates lobster fishing ban implemented to save whales

A federal appeals court has blocked lobstering in a large swath of the Gulf of Maine, siding with environmental groups seeking to protect the endangered right whale from getting entangled in fishing gear.

The Tuesday decision from the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a short-lived court win for Maine’s lobster industry, barring the use of traps in a roughly 950-square-mile area of the gulf from October to January.

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered species on the planet, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimating there are less than 400 remaining.

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The whales are vulnerable to getting tangled in fishing gear, which can prevent them from feeding, but a number have also been killed in ship strikes.

In a decision that noted the “economic harms” to the lobster industry, the court ruled the government had a “congressionally assigned task of assuring the right whales are protected from a critical risk of death.”

The ruling keeps the fishing ban in place as the court case continues.

Last month a district court judge sided with lobstermen, questioning government data and saying NOAA offered “markedly thin” modeling for claiming right whales frequented the area.

The reversal was a disappointment to industry groups.

“Maine Lobstermen’s Association is extremely disappointed with the Appeals Court ruling. The massive closure will create economic hardship for too many Maine lobstermen who have already invested in gear, rigged up, and are fishing in these productive waters,” the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) said in a release, arguing the government was overreaching in its management of the fishery.

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“MLA’s legal action has a simple aim: it demands that whale protection measures be based on sound science, informed not only by emotion or by speculation, but by the best available evidence of why the species is declining.”

Virginia Olsen, a lobsterwoman based out of Stongington, Maine, and liaison for the union Lobster 207, likewise called the ruling a let down.

“We are the industry that is just fighting to go to work,” she told The Hill, expressing concern over limited data showing whale traffic in the area.

“Our union members aren't saying that we don't want to do our part to protect right whales. We want to do our part to protect them where they are,” she said.

“Let's do that in a responsible way so it doesn't hurt Maine's coastal communities, our heritage fishery, and all the things we believe Maine is.”

Updated at 4:23 p.m.