Federal Court Reinstates Lobster Fishing Gear Ban for Right Whale Conservation

Ropes used for catching lobster in vertical buoy lines, in Maine
Ropes used for catching lobster in vertical buoy lines, in Vinalhaven, Maine in 2021. Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston has ruled to reinstate bans on lobster fishing gear in an area about 1,000 square miles off of the coast of Maine. The ban is a conservation measure meant to protect endangered right whales.

In 2021, the National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries, put restrictions on lobster fishing gear, particularly vertical buoy lines. North Atlantic right whales can get entangled in these fishing lines, and there are fewer than 340 of the species left. The ban was meant to provide more protection for this endangered species.

In response, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine put out a preliminary injunction that would halt the ban, but the federal court has just reinstated the ban on Tuesday, July 12.

“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 stated, as reported by the Associated Press.

This is the second recent ruling in favor of right whales. Last week, a U.S. District judge ruled that the federal government must implement more rules to better protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

“Lobster gear is a deadly threat to right whales, and the courts are telling the federal government to quit stalling and start taking real action,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said of last week’s ruling. “The Biden administration has to work much harder to help the industry prevent these agonizing, deadly entanglements.”

North Atlantic right whales feed in the waters around Canada and New England, then migrate south toward Florida to give birth. But their numbers are dwindling due to fishing entanglements and vessel strikes. 

Because of these pressures and climate change, the species is growing smaller, too. Today, these whales are also about 1 meter shorter than they were just a few decades ago. The smaller size means lower numbers of offspring, further threatening population numbers.

The U.S. lobster fishing industry, worth about $500 million, is fighting the restrictions, saying they are concerned the rules could ruin the lobster industry and that the latest ruling “is a distressing setback for the several hundred lobstermen who fish in that area,” according to Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Yet conservationists are requesting even stricter laws to protect the whales and praising the reinstated ban. Monsell noted that the ruling from Tuesday is  “a lifesaving decision for these beautiful, vulnerable whales.”

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