PORTLAND — Just two days before an area off the Maine coast was to be closed to vertical line fishing, U.S. District Judge Lance Walker halted its implementation. The closure is part of new fishing regulations recently issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to help save the endangered right whale.

The Maine Lobstering Union and other entities sued United States Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo over the new regulations.

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker Source: Portland Press Herald

The judge thought it was “troublesome” that the federal agency’s decision was based on methodology that is not in line with “past practices of justifying closures based on known and predictable whale aggregations demonstrated by concerted evidence.”

He said the modeling does not determine whether right whales actually congregate in the closure area. The federal government can gather more reliable evidence on whether whales do frequent the closure area. He said in his ruling that the passive acoustic recorders used to identify whales recently installed in the restricted area could have been placed several years earlier to help inform the final rule.

Walker also determined that the economic harms the closure creates outweigh the uncertain benefits of the closure for right whales.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association filed an Amicus brief Oct. 14 in the case that supports plaintiffs’ motion to block the implementation of the roughly 967-square-mile closure about 12 miles off the Maine coast that runs parallel to the Midcoast.

Maine lobstermen asserted that the closure does not serve to protect the whales and has the potential to cripple their industry. On the other hand, conservationists think the regulations do not go far enough and more needs to be done to protect the whales.

Since 2017 right whales have been in decline, according to NOAA. More than 10% of the population has died or suffered serious injury. Whale deaths outnumber whale births, with 42 calves born since 2017, and 50 known deaths or serious injuries to whales.

Much of the decline has happened in Canada’s St. Lawrence Bay. Researchers believe the whales’ food source has moved out of the Bay of Fundy and up into the Saint Lawrence Bay, with the whales following. Canada has implemented boating and fishing regulations in its waters, along with aerial surveys and underwater acoustic monitoring systems to detect the whales.

The U.S. government has conducted very few aerial and underwater acoustic surveys to look for whales in Maine waters. Instead, it is relying on scientific models that suggest whales frequent the area set for closure.

According to the federal government’s biological opinion, a document evaluating the effects licensed fishermen could have on the species, the whales can sustain less than one whale death per year caused by fishing activities. The biological opinion was used to help develop regulations to protect the whales.

Both of Maine’s senators and both of its representatives, along with Gov. Janet Mills, have criticized the closure. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Lewiston) issued statements supporting the judge’s ruling.

“Judge Walker’s sound decision to block the seasonal closure of valuable Maine lobstering waters is a positive signal that the voices of Maine lobstermen are being heard,” he said in an email statement. “For the first time in this regulatory process, the concerns of lobstermen were weighed fairly and as a result we have a ruling grounded in common sense and the public good.”

Maine Conservation Law Foundation issued a statement criticizing Walker’s decision to temporarily suspend implementation of the closure area. It called the bases for the closure scientific and said the decision ignores the scientists who helped develop the regulations.

“We’re confident that fishery managers made an evidence-based and reasoned decision when they closed this area,” Press Secretary Jake O’Neill said in an email statement. “These critically endangered right whales are depending on the immediate protections of this four-month closure — they don’t have years to wait.”

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association issued a statement in support of the judge’s decision. The closure would have impacted hundreds of Maine lobstermen, the organization said. It is one victory in the long legal battle ahead.

“But make no mistake, this important victory is just one step in a long fight we must pursue against the federal government’s 10-year whale plan that would decimate our industry,” Executive Director Patrice McCarron said in an email statement. “The MLA has filed a lawsuit against this flawed whale plan because it will devastate Maine’s lobster fishery while failing to protect endangered right whales.”

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