Massachusetts lobstermen sue NOAA over restricted fishing area

A graphic showing where the Massachusetts Restricted Area Wedge is.

The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) has launched a new lawsuit against NOAA over proposed permanent area closures related to protecting the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, soon after the Maine lobster industry scored a court win over NOAA rules. 

The MLA submitted its lawsuit on 9 February, claiming NOAA’s plan to permanently close the Massachusetts Restricted Area Wedge – and include the wedge in the Massachusetts Restricted Area annually from 1 February to 30 April – is unlawful under the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) of 2023. The MLA called the move a “continuation of NOAA’s unlawful conduct” in a press release about the issue.

“We refuse to stand by while NOAA unlawfully jeopardizes our livelihoods,” the MLA said. “We have reached a breaking point, and we will not tolerate any further unjust attacks on our industry. Enough is enough!”

The CAA granted the U.S. lobster fishery a six-year reprieve on new rules to the fishery by deeming the current rules sufficient through 31 December 2028. It also provided funding for more research into the impact that the fishery has on right whales.

The MLA argue the designation of the restricted fishing area means NOAA is in violation of the CAA. 

“Despite Congress’s explicit directive to refrain from interfering with the lobster industry, NOAA has left us no choice but to pursue litigation,” the MLA said.

The Massachusetts Restricted Area Wedge is an area east of Boston covering roughly 250 square miles, which is currently exempted from the stricter gear limits imposed on the Massachusetts Restricted Area. The area was closed to lobster fishing by emergency rulemaking in 2022 and 2023, and NOAA issued a final rule on 6 February that would make that change permanent effective 8 March 2024.

The MLA said that 250 square miles is of “critical importance” to the 650 commercial lobstermen still fishing in Massachusetts, adding that there has been historically low levels of right whale sightings in the region, with zero whales spotted in 2023.

The new lawsuit comes as the MLA dropped a separate class-action lawsuit it launched against the Monterey Bay Aquarium over its move to downgrade lobster from “yellow” to “red” in its Monterey Bay Seafood Watch Program. The downgrade specifically cited lobster’s impacts on right whales and names the species as one for consumers to avoid.

Soon after the MLA decided to drop its suit, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association scored a win in a long-running court battle that pitted it and NOAA against the Center for Biological Diversity.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg – the same judge who ruled in 2020 that the American lobster fishery violates the Endangered Species Act – granted a motion to dismiss a long-running lawsuit on 29 January.

Boasberg wrote in his opinion case was moot thanks to other court rulings. 

“The D.C. Circuit has since ruled in the lobstermen’s favor in a related case, vacating the agency’s most recent biological opinion as being too fishing restrictive,” Boasberg wrote. 

In June 2023, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rule in favor of Maine lobstermen, finding that the 2021 biological opinion that NOAA used for its new lobster fishing rules went too far.

Boasberg said the CAA is another a major reason for the court to grant a motion to dismiss. The act, “in plain English,” deems that the current regulations on lobster fishing are enough to meet the standards of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“In short, Congress has spoken,” he wrote.

The new ruling came shortly before the death of a right whale off the coast of Massachusetts was found to be directly caused by Maine-based fishing gear. A full necropsy of the whale by NOAA found that it had purple marks consistent with the gear-marking requirements for Maine lobstermen, contradicting a longstanding assertion by the industry that Maine lobster gear was not been connected to any right whale deaths – a claim environmental groups have disputed. 

"For years, some representatives of the Maine lobster industry have speciously claimed that its gear has never been linked to a recent death of an endangered North Atlantic right whale," The Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement. "It is now clear right whales can and do get entangled in fishing gear in Maine waters."

Image courtesy of NOAA


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