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Maine Legislature joins legal fight over whale protection rules

Beached Whale
An emaciated 60-foot finback whale that beached itself in the Breezy Point neighborhood of the Rockaways is shown in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012. Biologist Mendy Garron says it’s unclear what caused the whale to beach itself, but its chances of survival appear slim. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Kathy Willens

Maine Legislature joins legal fight over whale protection rules

October 12, 05:00 PM October 12, 05:01 PM

The Maine Legislature is wading into a legal fight between the federal government and the state’s commercial lobstermen over new whale protection rules.

On Thursday, the Legislative Council voted unanimously to join a federal lawsuit filed by the Maine Lobstering Union against the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal agencies. The suit seeks to block new federal regulations that include closing a sizable portion of state waters to lobstermen during the lucrative winter months.

Jackson said the Council “has no other option but to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the men and women who have made a living on our working waterfronts for generations while doing their part to protect wildlife and natural resources.”

“Federal regulators had the chance to work with Maine’s lobstering industry to come up with reasonable policies, backed by data, to protect this endangered species,” he said in a statement. “Instead, these regulators went ahead with sweeping changes that threaten the livelihood of Maine lobstermen with little-to-no evidence that they will actually protect right whales in Maine.”

The new regulations will require fishermen to make gear modifications to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water and will set a 950-square-mile section of the Gulf of Maine that will be off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January.

They will require buoyless or “ropeless” fishing gear – a new and costly technology that brings lobster traps to the surface using wireless signals – in some locations.

The lawsuit is the latest in a flurry of legal activity surrounding the new regulations, which are set to take effect in March 2022.

Last month, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association filed a lawsuit seeking to block new regulations that it argues will doom an industry that is already struggling amid stringent regulation and closures of fishing areas.

In legal arguments, the association points to federal data showing that Maine lobster fishery hasn’t documented an entanglement with a North Atlantic right whale in more than 17 years, and that of the 34 right whale deaths since 2017, only 12 have been in U.S. waters.

“Unfortunately, these punishing measures will provide no appreciable benefit for North Atlantic right whale while at the same time decimating the Maine lobster fishery,” lawyers for the association wrote in the 32-page complaint.

Meanwhile, Gov. Janet Mills has joined a nearly four-year old legal fight over whale protection rules on behalf of the state’s lobstermen.

That lawsuit, filed by the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity and other groups in 2018, seeks to force the National Marine Fishery Service to take aggressive steps to protect the right whale population.

The groups argue that fisheries managers violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing lobstermen to use vertical lines that have been known to cause entanglements.

But Mills said a court decision in the plaintiff’s favor in the lawsuit could close Maine’s lobster fishery altogether, which she called “a completely unacceptable outcome that would be devastating to our lobstermen and their families and devastating to our coastal communities and our economy.”

North Atlantic right whales were driven to the brink of extinction in the 20th century by whalers and are more recently at risk from ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.

Scientists say the population of right whales has dwindled to about 360. The species has also been hindered by poor reproduction and several years of high mortality, research has shown.

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