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Federal appeals court allows government to block lobstering off Maine

A lobster rears its claws after being caught off Spruce Head, Maine, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.
A lobster rears its claws after being caught off Spruce Head, Maine, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled in favor of protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales over the opposition of Maine lobster fishermen, allowing the government to close off about 967 square miles of the Atlantic Ocean to the lobster industry for a third of the year.

A three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston lifted a stay on a National Marine Fisheries Service rule prohibiting lobster fishing using buoy lines in the designated area from October to January each year. They found that a lower court had misunderstood the science and exceeded its authority in blocking the new restrictions, according to the judges’ decision.

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The government adopted the seasonal closure to reduce the chances of right whales becoming entangled in the ropes that connect buoys to lobster traps, according to the decision.

Before the rule went into effect, representatives of the lobster industry petitioned the District Court to postpone its enforcement until the court could decide whether the rule was lawful, and the “court put the new rule on ice,” according to the ruling.

The government and three environmental groups appealed , arguing that the court should not have blocked the rule, and asked that it be allowed to go into effect , according to the decision.

The appeals court agreed, writing that “while there are serious stakes on both sides, Congress has placed its thumb on the scale for the whales.”

The district court misunderstood government scientists’ analysis of data about right whales and tried to hold them to a higher standard of evidence than was required by the law, according to the ruling.

Thimi R. Mina, an attorney for the lobster industry group, said in an e-mail that their legal team is “analyzing the Court’s Order and evaluating the options.”

Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at Conservation Law Foundation, one of the environmental groups involved in the appeal, said the court’s “decision affirms that science matters.”

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“The First Circuit got it right — entanglements often can’t be traced, so where whales, lots of lines, and heavy fishing lines coincide, we need fishing restrictions now,” Fuller said in a statement.

Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, another environmental group in the case, said the court’s ruling “comes not a moment too soon for the right whale,” pointing to increasing deaths in recent years.

“Today’s decision restores the first protective measure NMFS has implemented for the right whale since the unprecedented unusual mortality event began more than four years ago,” Davenport said in a statement.

Kristen Monsell, who was lead attorney on the case for the Center for Biological Diversity, the third conservation group involved in the case, said she was “thrilled right whales will get at least some relief from deadly lobster gear” but called on the government “to do more to protect this incredibly vulnerable species from extinction.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.

In a statement Wednesday, the service said lobster and crab fisherman working in the closure area must remove all gear with buoy lines usually left in place, which could take up to two weeks.

The move is critical for the protection of the whales, the agency said.

“North Atlantic right whales are in crisis and approaching extinction with fewer than 400 remaining, due primarily to the serious injuries and deaths they have suffered from entanglements and vessel strikes,” the agency said.

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The population of right whales dropped to 336 in 2020, an 8 percent decrease from the 2019 estimate, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.

Getting entangled in trap lines is a leading cause of death and serious injuries for right whales, affecting nearly five a year on average. Without such dangers, right whales can live 40 to 70 years, according to the ruling.

“Because of the critical nature of the right whale’s population levels, there has long been federal regulation of certain fisheries aimed at reducing whale buoy and line entanglement,” the appeals court wrote.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.