Another environmental group is threatening a lawsuit to stop Maine lobstermen from using vertical fishing lines that it says pose a danger to right whales.

Whale Safe USA has served the Maine Department of Marine Resources with a written notice of its intent to sue that agency, alleging that it is violating an Endangered Species Act prohibition on killing or injuring endangered species such as the right whale. The paperwork serves as a 60-day notice of civil action. In an interview, its chief science officer, Max Strahan, said Whale Safe also plans to sue the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and individual Maine lobstermen.

Led by Massachusetts advocate Strahan, who has called himself the “Prince of Whales,” the group wants to stop Maine from issuing licenses to fishermen who use lobster pot gear that can entangle right whales, especially the ropes that connect lobster pots that sit on the ocean floor to the buoys that float on the surface.

“The MDMR in its current and past incarnations has been responsible for the killing and injuring of many endangered whales and sea turtles since before the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973,” Strahan said in a prepared statement. “It knows it (is) killing endangered whales and sea turtles but it simply will not stop.”

Some scientists who study right whales say the species, whose numbers have dropped to about 450 animals, could be doomed to extinction by 2040 if society doesn’t take significant steps to protect them.

Seventeen right whales were found dead in the summer and fall of 2017 in the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and off Cape Cod, many because of ship strikes or entanglements.

But Maine lobstermen note the industry, which generated about $434 million from landings and another $1 billion in post-dock revenue in 2017 alone, has already taken many steps to protect the whales, such as reducing the number of vertical lines and mandating the use of sinking lines between traps.

They also argue that no scientist has ever attributed a right whale death to Maine lobster gear.

The Department of Marine Resources has no plans to prohibit the use of vertical buoy lines, said spokesman Jeff Nichols.

“Maine DMR is committed to ensuring that regulations are informed by the best available data,” Nichols said by email Tuesday. “Maine DMR and Maine’s lobster industry have worked with the federal government for over 20 years on the development and implementation of whale protection rules.”

The agency has tested gear options to reduce whale entanglements and has documented how, when and where fishing occurs in the state and federal waters of the Gulf of Maine to inform the rules designed to reduce gear in areas where whales are observed, Nichols said.

The state is about to launch a study of the breaking strength of vertical lines to improve its available data.

The lobstermen’s association has not received any legal notice from Strahan, according to its director, Patrice McCarron.

She doesn’t know of any individual lobstermen who have been served, either. She said it would be difficult to speculate on what the lawsuit could mean, or the impact it might have on the industry, until Strahan files his official complaint.

Strahan’s group intends to file lawsuits in all coastal states that license trap fisheries that use vertical buoy ropes, including New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. It has already filed a suit in Massachusetts and will be filing a $1 billion claim against that state for licensing lobstermen who use vertical rope that entangles and kills right whales.

“(Whale Safe) USA will now make Massachusetts pay to bring back the right whales from the dead,” Strahan wrote.

That Whale Safe USA lawsuit would be the third filed in federal court this year seeking to protect the right whale.

The Humane Society of the United States, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity joined forces in January to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service and its parent federal agencies for not doing more to protect the whales from lobster gear. In March, the Conservation Law Foundation filed a similar federal lawsuit.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

[email protected]rald.com

Twitter: PLOvertonPPH

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CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 1:20 p.m. on June 27, 2018, to clarify that the notice of intent names the Department of Marine Resources. In an interview, Max Strahan said Whale Safe also plans to sue the Maine Lobstermen’s Association and individual Maine lobstermen.

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