Three national organizations went to court Thursday in an effort to force the federal government to provide greater protections for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

The plaintiffs allege that the federal government has failed to manage the fishing industry by not enforcing the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Scientists say right whales are facing extinction largely because the animals die after becoming entangled in lobster trap lines and commercial fishing gear.

The civil suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce was filed Thursday in federal court in Washington, D.C., by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Humane Society of the United States.

During a meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in October, scientists said the species is doomed to extinction by 2040 if humans don’t make substantive changes to protect them. A total of 17 right whales were found dead last summer and fall in the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off Cape Cod.

Dave Cousens, president of the Maine Lobsterman’s Association and a lobsterman who fishes out of South Thomaston, said he wasn’t surprised by the lawsuit after last year’s die-off.

“A lot of whales died,” Cousens said. “We have done a lot (to avoid entanglements) in Maine, and I have to say I don’t think Maine has been the cause of any of the deaths.”

Cousens said he fully expected that conservation organizations would demand that additional steps be taken to avoid entanglements with fishing gear.

In the suit, plaintiffs sharply criticize the NMFS for supporting a 2014 biological opinion that found commercial fisheries are likely to kill or seriously injure more than three North Atlantic right whales a year, but also led the federal agency to conclude “that the fishery is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of North Atlantic right whales.”

Federal officials now have 60 days to respond to the civil suit.

“The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered marine animals in the world. The population is in decline and consisted of only around 455 animals as of 2016,” the lawsuit states. “Sadly, at least 17 right whales died in 2017 alone, pushing the species even closer to the brink of extinction. Scientists now predict that if current trends continue, the species could be functionally extinct by 2040.”

Court records state that entanglement in commercial fishing gear is one of the most significant threats to the right whale’s survival and recovery, and is the primary cause of right whale injuries and deaths in recent years. From 2010 to 2016, entanglements accounted for 85 percent of diagnosed right whale mortalities.

“Right whales could disappear forever if they keep getting tangled up and killed in fishing gear,” Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The Trump administration has a legal and moral responsibility to prevent these amazing animals from suffering more deadly, painful entanglements. Federal officials have to act now, before it’s too late.”

When right whales become entangled in fishing gear, the heavy fishing line – often still connected to even heavier traps – can wrap around the whale’s head, mouth, flippers or tail, sometimes preventing the animal from resurfacing, resulting in drowning, the lawsuit states.

Researchers hoped for a more robust reproductive year soon after the right whale calving season began Dec. 1, but the Associated Press reported that no calves have been spotted off the coasts of Georgia and Florida, where the whales typically migrate each winter to give birth. Right whales have averaged about 17 births per year over the past three decades.

The five births recorded in 2016 were the lowest since 2000, when surveyors could only find one newborn whale.

“Scientists have warned that a continuation of the current rate of deaths will lead to the functional extinction of the species within about 20 years,” Sharon Young, the Humane Society’s field director for marine wildlife protection, said in a statement. “The National Marine Fisheries Service must properly examine the American lobster fishery’s contribution to this horrifying death toll, and must manage the fishery to protect this critically endangered species.”

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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