PORTLAND — A federal judge has ruled that new lobster fishing restrictions designed to conserve rare whales will be delayed until 2024 to give the government time to design them.

The ruling Thursday, Nov. 17, by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg came on the heels of his July ruling that new, stronger rules are needed to protect the North Atlantic right whale from extinction. The whales are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear.

Boasberg previously ruled that fishing restrictions issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service didn’t go far enough to protect the whales. The agency must issue new rules by December 2024, he ruled this week.

Environmentalists and fishing industry members have long argued about the rules. Fishermen argue that stricter rules could cripple the industry, which harvests one of the most popular and lucrative seafood items in the country. Conservation groups have cited entanglement in gear as an existential threat to the whales, which number 340 and are in decline.

The two sides came to rare accord over the decision to delay new rules to 2024. However, lobstermen said the industry still faces a grave threat from rules that prevent them from fishing.

“The bottom line is the court’s decision provides us some additional time to ensure that a final whale plan is based on the best available science and commercial data, but not enough time to help recover right whales without needlessly sacrificing the Maine lobster fishery,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

Conservation groups have pushed for the use of rope-free fishing gear to avoid entanglements, which are one of the two big threats to the whales, along with collisions with ships.

“A new and improved rule will keep right whales safer from deadly entanglements in fishing gear, so I’m glad the court realized the need to update the regulations,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But if we’re going to prevent the right whale’s extinction, we need to eliminate entanglements entirely, even non-fatal incidents, and the only way is to move to ropeless gear quickly.”

The right whales have been federally protected for decades but have been slow to recover from the commercial whaling era. The Marine Stewardship Council, which runs the largest seafood sustainability certification program in the world, said this week it will suspended its certification of Gulf of Maine lobster over concerns about harm to whales.

Maine delegation speaks out

The court ruling came a day after Maine’s congressional delegation, Gov. Janet Mills and others blasted the Marine Stewardship Council for its suspension of lobster fishery certification.

“Activists with an axe to grind have weaponized the court system and the Endangered Species Act,” the Maine delegation and Mills said.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, and Mills released the following statement after the Marine Stewardship Council announced plans to temporarily suspend its certification of Maine’s lobster fishery.

In its decision, MSC acknowledged that while the Maine fishery meets standards for sustainability and environmental impact and is unlikely to cause harm to right whales, it is unable to certify any fishery that is not in compliance with federal regulations — a standard MSC believes the fishery does not meet because of the ongoing litigation in CBD v. Ross.

“Today’s decision by the Marine Stewardship Council to temporarily suspend certification of Maine’s lobster fishery is the result of a years-long campaign from misguided environmentalist groups who seem to be hellbent on putting a proud, sustainable industry out of business without regard to the consequences of their actions,” the delegation said in the statement.

“While the Maine industry met the highest standards for environmental sustainability and impact, the current pending CBD v. Ross court case led by the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Humane Society of the United States made certification impossible. This litigation is based more on activism than evidence and is putting livelihoods in jeopardy.

“To be clear, this decision is not a reflection on the Maine lobster industry. As the MSC clearly states, ‘there is no recent evidence that the Maine lobster fishery is responsible for entanglements or interactions with right whales.’ The temporary suspension is purely because activists with an axe to grind have weaponized the court system and the Endangered Species Act to target the livelihoods of thousands of Maine lobstermen, their families, and the communities who work responsibly to maintain the delicate balance in Maine’s waters. The Maine lobster fishery has always complied with National Marine Fisheries Service regulations, and had the agency issued valid regulations, Maine’s lobster fishery would not have been in a position to lose its certification. It’s extraordinarily frustrating and incredibly unjust.

“We are deeply disappointed by this action, and hope that the MSC will reconsider the decision as litigation is ongoing in the matter. Any companies purchasing Maine lobster, or people deciding to enjoy a lobster roll, should view MSC’s decision purely as a result of a continuing legal process that is no fault of the fishery or lobstermen. MSC’s own independent review found the industry to be operating sustainably. In the meantime, we will continue doing everything in our power to support the iconic Maine industry and ensure that they have the resources they need to continue complying with any federal regulations.”

Republican Journal staff contributed to this story.