WASHINGTON — Several conservation agencies that have been fighting the National Marine Fisheries Service in federal court over the agency’s protections for the right whales filed additional claims on Sept. 9.
“For decades, the agency has failed to act or even follow the law, driving North Atlantic right whales toward extinction,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’ve already waited far too long to protect North Atlantic right whales from deadly entanglements. It’s time to get all vertical fishing lines out of right whale habitat and convert to on-demand ropeless fishing gear.”
The fisheries service issued new rules at the end of August for the lobster industry in order to cut down the chances of right whales entangling with lobstermen’s fishing gear. They included a seasonal closure of 967 acres of offshore fishing ground in the Gulf of Maine, new gear marking requirements and the insertion of weak links in vertical fishing lines.
The new lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation and Defenders of Wildlife claims that the agency’s new rule violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act by failing to reduce the risk of right whales dying in the ropes that lobstermen run from their traps to buoys enough to meet the requirements of the statute. It also alleges that the fisheries service’s Biological Opinion, a document that works hand-in-hand with the new rules, fails to meet the standards of the Endangered Species Act.
“The Fisheries Service continues to do too little, too late to reverse the right whale’s slide towards extinction,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Even after our court victory in 2020, the agency committed the same legal error again, blatantly disregarding its obligations to protect and recover this iconic species. We have no choice but to go back to court to force the agency to do its job.”
The conservation groups originally filed a lawsuit in federal court in 2018. Lobstermen in Maine have denied that they are the reason whales are dying and have pushed back against the new rules, saying they are too strict and won’t actually help the species rebound.
Federal officials say that right whales are in Maine, though there are few confirmed sightings in inshore state waters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has documented live right whales entangled in Maine lobster gear in 2002, 2003 and 2004. A right whale in Maine offshore waters was seen in trailing gear in 2015, though the gear was not retrieved to determine its origin.
The recent filing supplements the ongoing lawsuit between the conservation groups and the federal government.