Government and conservation groups appeal to reinstate seasonal ban on lobster fishing



The federal government and a group of conservation organizations this week appealed a recent court ruling that ended a planned seasonal shutdown of the traditional lobster fishery in an area of ​​the Gulf of Maine.

The closure, which would have come into effect on Oct. 18, was intended to help protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and would have banned traditional lobster fishing using ropes and buoys in the lucrative area of ​​967 square miles from October to January.

The Maine Lobstering Union, Fox Island Lobster Co. of Vinalhaven and Damon Family Lobster Co. of Stonington filed a joint complaint against the fisheries department last month in an effort to block the shutdown, arguing that regulators used shaky science to justify the restricted area.

In his ruling, released just two days before the shutdown was implemented, U.S. District Judge Lance Walker sided with the lobster fishing groups and said regulators had relied on statistical modeling. “markedly thin” instead of hard evidence to prove the area they had planned to close was really a heavily trafficked area for the endangered whale.

“I find that some of the economic damage that would result from taking effect of this closure outweighs the uncertain and unknown benefits of closing some of Maine’s richest fishing areas for three months on the basis of a prediction that could be a hot spot for the right whale (s), ”Walker wrote in his ruling.

The shutdown is a hotly contested part of a larger set of regulations released in August by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aimed at reducing the risk of right whales dying by entangled in fishing gear by at least 60%. .

The recent ruling put an end to what scientists and environmentalists see as a crucial part of this process.

In their appeal, the federal government and conservation groups – the Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Defenders of Wildlife – argue that not only did the National Marine Fisheries Service use the best available science, but also that Lobster groups presented no real evidence of the “certain economic harm” to which the judge referred.

The government estimates that 62 fishing vessels have set their traps in the proposed closure area, while 62 other vessels are fishing near the closure area and would likely suffer from a reduction in catches if displaced fishermen were forced to set their traps. elsewhere. The government estimates that each of these fishing vessels would suffer a loss of income of 5 to 10 percent.

Fishing groups and the State of Maine, however, say the number of fishing boats affected and the resulting losses are likely much higher, with up to 200 boats displaced, and some of them losing as much as ‘to half of their annual income.

Also in the appeal, the groups say complainants’ criticism of the availability and quality of data to support the restrictions is misplaced.

The Fisheries Department admitted that more data would be beneficial in refining the agency’s understanding of right whale distribution, but argued that there is sufficient data already available. Meanwhile, the agency is continuing aerial surveys and increasing the number of acoustic surveys it will use in the future.

“But, as the agency collects additional information, the right whale population continues to decline,” supporters of the closure said in their appeal.

LOW WHALE POPULATION

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium announced this week that the population fell another 10% last year, the Associated Press reported. There were 366 right whales in 2019, and last year that number fell to 336, the lowest number reported in nearly two decades.

Although no right whale entanglement has been directly linked to the Maine lobster industry since 2004, a historical lack of state-specific gear markings and the frequent absence of any gear has made it difficult to determine. where many entanglements have occurred.

“Maine has the highest concentration of all vertical line gear in US waters, and right whales still use US waters,” the callers wrote. “(The Fisheries Department) has determined that these facts constitute the best science available. The law clearly states that (the fisheries department) must use the best available scientific data, not the best possible scientific data.

All available data confirms that right whales have used the area during the closed period in recent years, they said, noting that offshore fisheries, such as those in the planned closure area, use buoy lines. stronger and longer which are potentially more lethal to entangled whales. .

Lobster fishing groups have until Tuesday to answer the call, and the response brief from the government and conservation groups is due next Friday, according to Erica Fuller, senior counsel for the Conservation Law Foundation. They await a decision from Walker shortly thereafter.


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