Judge blocks partial lobstering ban in Maine, drawing industry praise

Published on
October 18, 2021
Maine lobstermen set their traps. A U.S. District Court judge blocked new rules that would have effectively banned fishing in a 967-square-mile area of water of the Maine coast.

A U.S. District Court judge has blocked a federal ban on lobstering in a section of water off the U.S. state of Maine.

New rules announced by the National Marine Fisheries Service in August would have resulted in the effective closure of the LMA 1 area off the Maine Coast, which comprises a roughly 967-square-mile section of water, from October through January. The new rules would allow lobster fishing so long as it was done without using vertical lines via “ropeless” gear, but that technology has not yet entered regular commercial use.

While many of the proposed rules would take time to go into effect, U.S. Marine Mammal Take Reduction Team Lead Marisa Trego said during a press conference announcing the new rules that the ban would go into effect 30 days after its publication in the Federal Register – meaning the rules would have impacted lobstermen later in October.

Soon after the new rules were announced, the Maine Lobstering Union (MLU) filed in federal court for a temporary restraining order to stop the closure. The NMFS made a misstep with the vertical line ban, the filing said.

“NMFS did not base the LMA 1 Restricted Area on science, but rather a desire to spread the burden of risk-reduction across all jurisdictions,” it said.

While vertical lines could pose risks to whales, there’s only a risk when lines and whales are both present – something that hasn’t been proven to be an issue as whales are not present in the area, according to the filing.

An amicus brief filed by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association alongside the MLU restraining order said much the same.

“The closure – which is scheduled to go into effect next week – is ostensibly intended to protect North Atlantic right whales from becoming entangled in lobster fishing gear,” the MLA brief said. “However, MLA’s members have been fishing in the LMA 1 closure area for decades, and there has never been a single documented or observed instance of a North Atlantic right whale entanglement in the Maine waters of LMA 1. At the most, the conservation benefit of the closure is speculative.”

U.S. District Court Judge Lance E. Walker appeared to agree with the assertion that the reasoning used by the NMFS to close the area was inadequate.

“In this case, [NMFS] imposed what is, in practical effect, a substantial closure of the Maine lobster fishery, based on what appears to be a markedly thin statistical modeling methodology,” Walker said. Walker said the rules appeared to “depart dramatically from [NMFS'] past practice of justifying closures based on known and predictable whale aggregations demonstrated by concrete evidence.” Walker said the NMFS instead used a “density model” that missed the core of the issue: whether or not right whales are present in the LMA 1 area.

“Here, the agency’s devotion to whale distribution modeling ignored what I deem to be a core aspect of the problem of right whale entanglements: whether right whales actually aggregate in the LMA 1 Restricted Area,” Walker said.

As a result, Walker said the MLU and other plaintiffs in the case demonstrated “strong enough likelihood of success” in the challenge of the new rules, and ultimately ruled that the implementation of the LMA 1 restrictions will be blocked “pending a ruling on the merits of this action.”

The decision was celebrated by the Maine Lobstering Union.

“This victory by the Maine Lobstering Union is a significant step in protecting one of Maine’s most precious industries - lobstering,” said Alfred Frawley, the attorney who represented the Maine Lobstering Union in the case. “Our lobstermen have put generations of time, effort, and substantial financial resources into their craft. The lobstering industry is not only a treasure to Maine but a treasure to our American history. The regulations proposed by federal agencies would have had a chilling impact on communities throughout Maine. We will continue to push for science and data that reflect what is truly happening in our industry.”  

Photo courtesy of Allan Wood Photography/Shutterstock

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