ME - Lobster industry wages legal battle over recent regulations, while new ones remain frozen

Feb. 27—Maine's lobster fishery may have received a six-year reprieve from any new federal regulations, but lobstermen are still wrapped up in litigation over the most recent rule changes, which they say are burdensome and needless.

The Maine Lobstermen's Association in September appealed a ruling in a lawsuit against federal regulators in which a judge rejected the association's attempt to block the National Marine Fisheries Service's 10-year plan to reduce the risk posed by fishing gear to North Atlantic right whales. The animals risk injury or death when they become entangled in lines or gear.

The case has been moving with relative speed through the court system, with oral arguments presented in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., last week.

The association argued that the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, failed to rely on the best scientific information available and did not account for the impact of conservation measures already adopted by the Maine lobster fishery. In effect, the lobstermen argue, the federal government placed its thumb on the scale in favor of the whales.

Attorney Paul Clement told judges Friday that the federal agency is required to consider likely scenarios and take the best available science and data into consideration when creating new regulations governing the fishery. Instead, he said, the fisheries service chose to rely on speculation, presumption and worst-case scenarios.

"Properly construed, the Endangered Species Act does not require the federal government to shutter an iconic industry (that is) central to the cultural identity of the State of Maine to avoid speculative harm to an endangered species," Clement said.

At the heart of the case is a set of much-debated regulations, including new gear marking mandates, a reduction in the number of vertical lines in the water, the insertion of weak points in rope, and a seasonal closure of a nearly 1,000-square-mile area off the Gulf of Maine.

The rules are the first of three phases designed to reduce the risk to the whales by 98% in 10 years. But opponents have said that level of risk reduction will simply shift the extinction from the whales to the lobster industry. Fishermen have long contended that right whales are not in Maine waters, and there has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine's lobster industry.

Environmentalists, however, argue that just because a death hasn't been linked to the fishery doesn't mean it hasn't happened; a historical lack of gear marking has made it difficult to determine where an entanglement occurred.

The animals' current population numbers fewer than 340, with only 70 breeding females.

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