A federal judge on Friday ruled in favor of the endangered North Atlantic right whale in a lawsuit pitting environmental groups against federal regulators and New England lobstermen challenging regulations intended to protect the whales from potentially fatal entanglements in fishing gear.
Judge James E. Boasberg, sitting in US District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled that a biological opinion and a final rule issued in 2021 by National Marine NOAA Fisheries Services violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, according to court documents and a statement from environmentalists.
The lawsuit was filed in 2018 in US District Court for the District of Columbia by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservation Law Foundation, and Defenders of Wildlife, and the defendants grew to include the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, Maine Lobstermen’s Association, and Maine Lobstering Union.
The decision, which determined the regulations did not do enough to protect the whales from the threats of entanglement in traps and gear, could have wide ranging impact on lobstermen up and down the New England coast.
In a statement Friday evening, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association called the ruling a “mixed bag,” and vowed to “not allow this industry to go down without a fight.”
The ruling " . . . clearly demonstrates why it’s more important than ever for MLA to have the financial resources to continue this battle,” the association said in a statement.
The association said it would continue to pursue its own lawsuit filed against NOAA last year, which challenges the agency’s goal of reducing harm to whales by 98 percent, saying it “ . . . rests solely on hypothetical, inflated estimates unsupported by the agency’s own data. These are issues that MLA believes the court must direct the agency to examine rigorously.”
Officials at the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association and Maine Lobstering Union did not immediately respond to requests for comment late Friday afternoon. A spokeswoman for NOAA said only that it was “reviewing the opinion.”
Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, said the “decision recognizes what NOAA Fisheries has ignored for decades — that Congress clearly intended to protect right whales from the lobster gear entanglements that are driving the species toward extinction just as surely as whaling nearly did.”
“Today’s opinion is the course correction the agency needs to put both the species and the fishery on a path towards sustainability and co-existence,” Davenport said in the statement from the plaintiffs in the case.
Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the ruling “a huge victory in the fight to save these profoundly endangered whales from extinction.”
“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,” Monsell said in the statement. “The Biden administration has to work much harder to help the industry prevent these agonizing, deadly entanglements.”
Vikki N. Spruill, the president and chief executive of the New England Aquarium, applauded the ruling in a separate statement, saying that the aquarium’s “research has shown fishing gear entanglements to be the leading cause of the critically endangered species’ decline.”
“We know there is a path forward for the lobster fishery and right whales to coexist with bold action and strong commitment from all involved,” Spruill said. “The Aquarium is committed to working collaboratively with scientists, fishermen, government agencies, and conservationists to save this vital species from extinction.”
In a 43-page ruling, Boasberg wrote that only about 370 North Atlantic right whales remain on earth, and their greatest threat is entanglement in fishing gear, much of it dropped into the ocean by lobster crews.
NOAA authorizes the use of that gear and is required by the Endangered Species Act to issue findings that its use will not jeopardize the whales. But a report it issued last year “concluded that the fisheries under review would not jeopardize the continued existence of the whale despite acknowledging the expected potential harm to the species,” Boasberg wrote.
The report projected that an average of nearly three whales could be killed each year by lobster or crab gear, the judge wrote, and invalidated that opinion and a final rule based upon it.
Acknowledging the complexity of fisheries regulations, and the potential impact of his ruling on “on the lobster industry — and on the economies of Maine and Massachusetts,” Boasberg said the court would order no remedy to the issues raised in the case.
“Instead, it will offer the parties the opportunity for further briefing to articulate alternatives the Court may select,” he wrote.
Boasberg’s previously ruled in the case in April 2020 that an opinion released by the fisheries service violated the Endangered Species Act.
Right whales that become entangled in fishing gear can drown right away or die slowly from injuries, infections, or starvation, according to the environmental groups. Even when whales survive entanglements, they can sap the sea mammals of their strength.
David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
This breaking news story will be updated.