The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has launched a campaign to raise $500,000 to fund its legal efforts to protect the state’s most valuable fishery from the consequences of a recent federal court ruling that calls for more government protections for the endangered right whale.

Last month, a federal judge found the National Marine Fisheries Service had violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act by its authorization of the U.S. lobster industry – including Maine’s $485 million-a-year fishery – because it failed to report the fishery’s harmful impacts on the endangered right whale.

“This case could lead to closure of the world’s most sustainable fishery,” said executive director Patrice McCarron, whose association is the oldest and biggest lobstering group in Maine. “We cannot let that happen. Right whales are not dying in Maine lobster gear.”

Scientists say the North Atlantic right whale is in trouble. Its numbers have declined to about 400 individual whales, plagued by low calving rates and deaths and serious injuries caused by ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements, especially in Canada’s Gulf of Saint Lawrence and Bay of Fundy.

None of the entanglement deaths can be traced back to Maine lobster gear, according to federal data. But that doesn’t mean Maine lobster gear isn’t killing whales, environmental groups say. Most whales that die from entanglement have no identifiable rope or gear left on them when found.

The group has already raised $50,000 for its legal defense fund, McCarron said. The money will be used to cover anything and everything that needs to be done to defend the industry in the pending litigation, from legal fees to research to consultation with experts.

“This could mean the end of the lobstering tradition,” she said. “We are fighting for our lives right now.”

The defense fund was created in 2007 to fight another right whale lawsuit brought by environmental groups, McCarron said. At that time, environmental groups were pushing federal regulators to require lobster fishermen to use sinking ground lines to reduce the risk of entanglement in fishing gear.

The association uses two attorneys, Mary Ann Mason and Jane Luxton, to do its right whale work. Mason, who started with MLA in 2008 but is now retired, has been providing her services for free. Last fall, MLA hired Luxton and her team at Lewis Brisbois out of Washington, D.C., to join the effort.

Federal regulators will propose new right whale protections in July. Potential changes could include more seasonal area closures, like the one enacted in Cape Cod Bay, to large reductions in the number of seabed-to-surface buoy lines. Environmental groups have called for ropeless fishing.

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