Metro

Local group seeks lawsuit to aid right whales

FILE - In this 2009 file photo, a female right whale swims at the surface of the water with her calf a few miles off the Georgia coast in 2009. Scientists watching for baby right whales off the Southeast U.S. coast have yet to spot a single newborn seven weeks into the endangered species' calving season, a dry spell researchers haven't seen in nearly 30 years. (AP Photo/Savannah Morning News, John Carrington, File)
Associated Press/Savannah Morning News, John Carrington, File
A female right whale swims at the surface of the water with her calf a few miles off the Georgia coast in 2009.

After a year of major losses for North Atlantic right whales, a local environmental advocacy group filed a federal lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service Thursday, arguing that the agency should do more to protect the critically endangered mammals.

Over the past year, 18 right whales have died -- a grave blow to a species with only about 450 left in the world. Scientists fear they’re not reproducing fast enough and could face extinction as soon as 2040.

In response, federal regulators declared an “unusual mortality event,” triggering an investigation into the deaths and bringing more resources to protect the whales.

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But lawyers at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston, which filed the suit, argued that the agency should be doing more.

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“Regulators are not just morally mandated to act . . . they are also legally required to ensure fishing efforts do not cause harm to these animals,” said Emily Green, an attorney at the foundation.

Green noted that the vast majority of right whale deaths have been attributed to entanglements in fishing gear, especially the lines that connect surface buoys to lobster traps.

“Tragically, chronic entanglement is a source of extreme stress, pain, and suffering for right whales, and can interfere with eating, moving, and reproducing,” Green said. “And we know that entanglement can cause long-term adverse health impacts, even for whales that manage to escape the ropes.”

Officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service declined to comment.

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But lobstermen have deep concerns about additional government regulations that could change how they fish. In Maine, where there are an estimated 3 million lobster traps, lobstermen worry that the government could ultimately require them to use ropeless traps, a new technology that employs flotation devices and wireless technology.

Such a system, they say, would be prohibitively expensive and create a host of other problems, such as traps that don’t surface because of a technology glitch.

“What the environmentalists have been proposing is deeply concerning to us,” said David Cousens, board president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “We can’t even think about it.”

Over the years, lobstermen have already been forced to comply with a host of regulations meant to protect whales. For example, the federal government has required them to use ground lines that sink and special ropes that break when there’s too much tension on them.

“We are concerned about the whales, and we want to help,” Cousens said. “Something needs to be done. But we just don’t know what to do.”

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The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Boston, follows a similar action filed in Washington D.C. by the Humane Society of the United States and other groups.

Green said the foundation’s lawsuit does not ask the court to take any specific action. Instead, it asks the court to order the agency to conduct a review within two months to assess how the region’s fishermen are affecting right whales.

In addition to ropeless traps, other possible regulations could include area closures, vessel speed limits, gear-marking requirements, and monitoring systems.

“We recognize that the lobster fishery is a central part of New England’s economy, but the critical status of the right whale population demands immediate action,” she said. “NOAA Fisheries’ responsibility is to determine how to manage the fishery while ensuring that they aren’t condemning the North Atlantic right whale to extinction.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.