Federal judge rejects lobsterers’ attempt to block right whale rules

A federal judge has rejected Maine lobsters’ latest bid to delay new restrictions to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, dismissing fishermen’s arguments that the National Marine Fisheries Service acted improperly. arbitrary and exaggerated the danger their gear poses to whales.

U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg in Washington, DC, ruled Thursday against lobster fishing groups and the state of Maine in their action against the NMFS and allied environmental groups supporting new fishing gear in the lobster and area restrictions.

“The NMFS has reasonably explained how it estimated the right whale population and modeled that population in the future, relying on what it rationally assessed to be the best available data and subjecting its methods to peer review. pairs. This is all the Administrative Procedure Act requires,” Boasberg wrote in his 33-page opinion.

Boasberg has previously ruled that federal protections for whales don’t go far enough under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. The NMFS says its latest set of rules and restrictions will provide more protection for the highly endangered population, currently estimated at around 340 animals in the Atlantic waters of the United States and Canada.

Among their arguments, Maine lobsters argued the danger posed by their equipment if grossly exaggerated; there has been no documented case of whale entanglement with Maine lobster gear in 18 years, said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Lobster fishermen see the new rules as a huge threat to the survival of their industry.

“The Federal District Court and the National Marine Fisheries Service have failed Maine’s lobster industry. It has become crystal clear that neither understands the devastating effects their decisions will have on Maine’s lobster industry, our coastal communities and the State of Maine,” said the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said in a statement late Thursday.

“The court ruling gives a blank check to the NMFS to continue using accepted ‘worst-case scenarios’ and ignoring real data in its regulation of a fishery that has recorded no right whale entanglements in the past 18 years. years,” the association said. “This disappointing decision puts the future of Maine’s lobster legacy in great jeopardy and, with it, the livelihoods of thousands of hard-working men and women.” But this is not the end. We will not go down without a fight.

The MLA, Maine Lobstering Union Local 207 and the State of Maine challenged the rules and the data behind them in the latest biological advisory developed by the NMFS. Alongside the agency as defendants were the Conservation Law Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wildlife Defenders.

“This decision rejects the lobster industry’s attempts to distract from the overwhelming scientific evidence that entanglements have killed far too many right whales for far too long,” said Erica Fuller, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “It took the Fisheries Department five years to finalize a rule that only reduced the fatal risk of entanglement by 50% when science shows 90% is needed. This species doesn’t have another five years to wait for the agency to comply with the law.

Environmental groups themselves won a court challenge two months ago to the NMFS and the biological advisory, arguing before Judge Boasberg that the agency’s protective measures don’t go far enough. This could lead to even more restrictions.

In the opinion brief, Boasberg reviews at length the history of the case and the facts, as well as the arguments presented by the defenders of the lobster fishery. Among their objections was that the NMFS threat analysis exaggerated the danger posed by Maine’s lobster gear, compared to Canadian snow crab gear that whales may encounter farther north.

But Boasberg judged that the NMFS had made a reasonable effort to estimate the dangers of future gear entanglements.

“While noting that the heavier Canadian gear used in the snow crab fishery is more lethal than the American buoy lines used in the lobster fishery, the NMFS nevertheless concluded that the large number of buoy lines in the waters combined with substantial uncertainty about the effects of the countries’ mitigations, suggested a 50/50 split,” the judge wrote. “For good measure, the agency subjected its approach to review by the peers from the Center of Independent Experts, who concluded that given the limited data available, the NMFS approach was ‘reasonable’… This analysis was neither arbitrary nor capricious.”

“Ultimately, the NMFS reviewed the relevant data and came up with a rational, peer-reviewed explanation for its approach,” Boasberg wrote. “As attempting to trace the location of the fatal entanglements is essentially murky water, the Court declines to move the expert agency’s judgment.”

“The Court remains mindful of the important interests of all parties to this dispute: the lobster fishermen in the preservation of their livelihoods and traditions; conservation groups in the protection of the nearly extinct right whale; and NMFS in making complex predictions with imperfect data,” Boasberg concluded. .

Maine state officials have sided with fisheries advocates in court, and Gov. Janet Mills said support will continue.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service has always interpreted the data as conservatively as possible, disregarding the impact of ship strikes on whales and whale entanglements in Canadian snow crab gear, putting all the burden of protecting right whales on their shoulders. of the Maine lobster fishery,” Mills said in a statement Thursday.

“Maine Lobsters care about the endangered right whale and have taken substantial action to protect them at great personal cost; but the federal government’s regulations are simply not based on solid science or proven facts. »