Weak protection for endangered whales breaks law, judge says

PORTLAND, Maine— The federal government hasn’t done enough to protect a rare species of whale from deadly entanglement in lobster fishing gear, and new rules are needed to protect the species from extinction, a judge has ruled.

The government violated both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act by failing to protect the North Atlantic right whale, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg said Friday. There are less than 340 whales in the world and their population has rapidly declined in recent years.

Boasberg’s decision was a victory for conservation groups that have long sought to save the whale and a new challenge for lobster fishermen who have fought back against tightening restrictions on where and how they can fish. Boasberg ruled that the court’s findings “do not dictate that it must immediately shut down the US lobster fishery,” but rather said the parties must come up with potential remedies for the threat facing the whales.

The decision “may seem like a harsh outcome for the lobster industry” and the government, but no one “operates without meeting the stringent requirements imposed by the MMPA and ESA,” Boasberg wrote.

Environmental groups celebrated the decision, while some in the fishing industry took a more measured approach.

The decision came after a group of environmental organizations sued the federal government, complaining that it was not doing enough to save whales from lobster fishing gear. Boasberg’s decision validates that claim, said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that sued.

“Lobster gear is a deadly threat to right whales, and the courts are telling the federal government to stop dithering and start taking real action. The Biden administration needs to work much harder to help the industry prevent these agonizing and deadly entanglements,” Monsell said.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association, the largest fishing trade group on the East Coast, said in a statement it was still reviewing the decision. The association also pointed to a section of Boasberg’s ruling that the National Marine Fisheries Service “may find that other measures exist to reduce lethal catches, or that projected catches are actually lower than initial estimates.” That makes the decision “a mixed bag,” the association said.

“We are encouraged that the court recognizes the great importance of Maine’s lobster legacy and appreciates the potential and unnecessary harm that could be inflicted on the men and women who work so hard to make our industry thrive,” said Patrice McCarron. , executive director of the Maine Lobster Association.

Right whales give birth off Florida and Georgia and come north to New England and Canadian waters to feed. They are also at risk from fatal ship strikes, and federal authorities are expected to issue new guidelines soon to protect them from this threat.

Whales were once plentiful, but they were decimated in the days of commercial whaling. Some scientists have said warming ocean temperatures cause them to move away from protected areas in search of food, making them more vulnerable to collisions and entanglement.

Leave a Comment