NOAA Fisheries Photo

State, MLA jump into legal fray over whale rules

ELLSWORTH — The state of Maine and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association have both made legal moves against the recent rules that are aimed to help the North Atlantic right whale but are expected to cause major shifts in the state’s lobster fishery.

Last week, Maine filed to intervene in an ongoing lawsuit over the rules to protect the endangered whales. On Sept. 27, the state was granted intervenor status, allowing officials to submit official testimony in the case.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association went a step further and filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service over the 10-year guiding document for the new rules, saying they are “draconian and fundamentally flawed.”

The association claims that the biological opinion, a plan for the fishery and species going forward, is unlawful because the federal agency acted arbitrarily and failed to use the best scientific information. The lobstermen group also contended that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to account for conservation measures already adopted by the industry.

“NMFS got it wrong,” said Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, in a statement. “The science does not support the agency’s plan. Using worst case scenarios that hold Maine lobstermen accountable for right whale deaths occurring in Canada won’t help protect right whales, but it will decimate Maine’s lobster industry.”

The biological opinion calls for a cumulative 98 percent in risk reduction for the whales. State officials have said that this would result in a total reinvention of the fishery. Maine lobstermen staunchly maintain that the fishery poses little risk to right whales and this plan forces unnecessary burden on the state’s fleet.

“NMFS is targeting Maine lobstermen because it is easy,” association president Kristan Porter, a Cutler lobsterman, said in a statement. “We’re a bunch of small, owner‐operated businesses. Taking on Canada and the shipping industry is hard. Maine lobstermen understand the need to protect right whales, but if NMFS really wants to save right whales, they should be going after the things we know are actually killing them rather than dismantling our fishery piece by piece.”

On the flipside, several conservation agencies that have been calling for more stringent measures on the lobster industry have also filed claims over the latest lobster rules and the biological opinion.

The new rules were issued at the end of August and include a seasonal closure of a large swath of offshore fishing grounds to traditional lobstering, new gear marking requirements and the insertion of weak links in vertical fishing lines.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation and Defenders of Wildlife claim the new rules violate 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 alleged that the biological opinion fails to meet the standards of the Endangered Species Act.

Right whales can be found in Maine waters, but recent research says they have been shifting their traditional foraging grounds and there are few confirmed sightings in inshore state waters. The last documented live right whale entangled in Maine lobster gear was in 2004. A whale was seen trailing gear in offshore waters in 2015, though the gear was not retrieved to determine its origin.

Ethan Genter

Ethan Genter

Former reporter for the Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander, Ethan covered maritime news and the town of Bar Harbor.
Ethan Genter

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