US judge overturns closure of Massachusetts Restricted Area Wedge to commercial fishing

The Massachusetts Restricted Area Wedge
The Massachusetts Restricted Area Wedge | Image courtesy of National Marine Fisheries Service
2 Min

A federal judge has overturned restrictions on lobster and Jonah crab fishing off the U.S. state of Massachusetts, ruling that a 2023 law restricting fishing gear to protect whales applies to an emergency rule enacted by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

That emergency rule entailed NMFS seeking to extend 2022-23 area closures in the Massachusetts Restricted Area Wedge, making late winter and spring gear restrictions permanent when endangered North Atlantic right whales are often in the area.

The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association filed a lawsuit on 9 February, contending that congressional limits on whale-protection measures applied to the new Massachusetts wedge rule.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 included a five-year mandate that NMFS’s existing Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan amendments “shall be deemed sufficient to ensure that the continued federal and state authorizations of the American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries are in full compliance” with federal endangered species and marine mammal laws, the MLA said in its lawsuit.

In a 15 March ruling, U.S. District Court Judge William G. Young of the District of Massachusetts agreed. 

“The Final Wedge Closure Rule is, therefore, void and unenforceable during that period” through 31 December 2028, Young wrote in his opinion. “Final judgment is entered in favor of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.”

In a statement in response to the judgment, NMFS said the closure of the MRA Wedge is no longer in effect.

“NOAA Fisheries is reviewing the decision,” it said. “In recent years, the Wedge Area has been an area with high right whale presence, so we ask that fishermen consider that in determining where to set and stage their gear.”

The wedge was closed by emergency rulemaking in 2022 and 2023, when federal officials said there was immediate risk to North Atlantic right whales from “mortality and serious injury caused by buoy lines in an area with a high co-occurrence of whales and buoy lines. This risk is expected to recur annually.”

In court filings, the MLA highlighted its members’ contributions to protecting whales from entanglement danger, including area closures and gear modifications.

“Members of the MLA can also proudly claim to be the first in the nation to universally adopt use of sinking ground rope, weak line, weak inserts, and other conservation measures, including instituting mandatory use of 75 percent weak rope in all lobster and other trap fisheries, invention of their own weak insert device, known as the ‘South Shore Sleeve,’ and instituting a 50 percent trap reduction in Lobster Management Area Two implemented from 2016 and 2021,” the group said. “MLA’s leading-from-the-front conservation and risk mitigation efforts have been successful as there is no evidence of any serious injuries or mortalities to North Atlantic right whales arising from Massachusetts-licensed lobster fishing gear in recent history, making Massachusetts waters a veritable safe haven for the North Atlantic right whale."

Reporting by Kirk Moore

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