BANGOR — It appears the future of the lobster fishery could be decided not on the water, but in a courtroom.
The Maine Lobstering Union, along with lobster dealers from Stonington and Vinalhaven, have joined the growing number of lawsuits over regulations on the industry that were put in place to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The Trenton based-union, Fox Island Lobster Co. of Vinalhaven and Damon Family Lobster of Stonington all filed a suit in federal court in Bangor Sept. 27 against the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal officials over the closure of a large swath of offshore fishing ground.
The 967-square-mile seasonal closure will go into effect in mid-October and run through January. The area, known as LMA1, runs from west of Mount Desert Island to approximately Casco Bay. Federal officials said it was an effort to cut down on the number of vertical ropes that run from lobster traps on the seafloor to buoys on the surface. Whales can get entangled in the vertical lines.
The union and its co-plaintiffs allege that the closure is “the product of an arbitrary and capricious agency action” and argued that the federal government’s own data showed there has not been an entanglement in Maine lobster gear for nearly 20 years.
Instead, the National Marine Fisheries Service made the closure “simply to spread risk reduction responsibility across jurisdictions, without regard to the fact that lobster fishing is far more important to Maine’s economy than it is to that of any other state.”
The complaint also contends that the service did not evaluate the effectiveness of existing regulations designed to reduce the risk of entanglement before implementing the closure and that it did not have an accurate model to project prey and whale distribution into future months.
“The complaint alleges that the impact of such a hastily configured closure, virtually without evidence of any biological benefit to the North Atlantic right whale and its survival, is precisely the sort of arbitrary and capricious agency action that the Administrative Procedures Act prohibits,” said Thimi Mina, an attorney for the union, Fox Island and the Damon family.
The union’s lawsuit was filed the same day the Maine Lobstermen’s Association filed a lawsuit over the overarching rules in Washington, D.C., and the state of Maine was granted intervenor status.
The state Legislature also threw its weight behind lobstermen with a joint order that allows the state Legislative Council to take legal action to support lobstermen impacted by the new regulations. Exactly how that may shake out remains to be seen but the council could also file a lawsuit, become an intervenor or file an amicus brief.
“I fully support the Legislature taking every possible action to support the Maine lobster fishery and protect the fleet from unfair and arbitrary federal restrictions,” said state Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington), a lobster boat captain. “We should not be basing regulations on outdated science, especially when the livelihoods of so many people hang in the balance.”
The LMA1 closure was estimated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to affect 60 lobstermen who fish directly in that area and another 60 who would be affected by the displaced fishermen.
Because fishermen don’t have to disclose where they fish, it is hard to get an exact number on how many local fishermen will be affected by the closure. The Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries has estimated that upward of 30 lobstermen in Zone C, which includes Stonington and several other towns, use LMA1.
The union has asked a judge to stop the implementation of the closure until it is proven that it is needed in order not to jeopardize the continued existence of North Atlantic right whales.
The species has been struggling for years and there are now about 360 left on the planet.