Northeast
via NOAA Fisheries

ME - Appeals court reaffirms seasonal ban on lobstering in effort to protect right whales

A federal court had issued a preliminary injunction to halt enforcement of rules that prohibited lobstering in a portion of the Gulf of Maine.

A federal appeals court has upheld a seasonal ban on traditional lobster fishing in a nearly 1,000-square-mile area off the Maine coast in an effort to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Practically speaking, the move will have little impact for the Maine lobster industry because the ban already was implemented last fall, but it’s yet another setback for the fishery in its fight against new rules championed by environmental groups and imposed by federal regulators.

The closure is a hotly contested piece of a larger set of rules released last summer by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aimed at reducing the risk to right whales by at least 60 percent.

Located in federal waters about 30 miles offshore, the restricted area stretches from about Mount Desert Island down to eastern Casco Bay. The 967-square-mile stretch is closed to traditional lobster fishing with vertical buoy lines from October through January. Regulators point to the risk of whales getting entangled in the fishing lines.

Fisheries officials say the restricted area, while representing a small fraction of the Gulf of Maine, is a hotspot for the imperiled whales. In the colder months, they travel south from their New England and Canadian feeding grounds to warmer waters to breed. There are fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales remaining.

Late fall through early winter isn’t traditionally a busy season for Maine lobstermen, but for those with a license to fish in federal waters more than 3 miles offshore, the colder temperatures mean harder shells and higher prices, making it a lucrative time of year. Regulators estimate the closure impacts about 120 boats, but industry members say that number is grossly underestimated. There are an estimated 5,000 lobstermen in Maine.

Tuesday’s ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Boston is the latest development in what has been a contentious legal battle.

After NOAA announced the new rules in August, the Maine Lobstering Union and other industry members pushed back against the closure. In October, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine issued a preliminary injunction to halt the enforcement of the rules. A month later, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the injunction order pending appeal. The closure went into effect Nov. 18.

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