Nationwide conservation groups are calling for the banning of vertical rope in lobstering off Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, saying it can snare endangered right whales.

In a legal brief filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Washington, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity and others called for an immediate ban on lobster lines in the area. They also call for a more comprehensive plan to protect the whales by February 2021.

The environmental groups sued the federal government claiming that regulators violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect the right whales. In April, a judge agreed, and set a timeline to create new regulations. This latest filing is the environmentalists’ proposal for new rules.

“The closure we’re seeking is a short-term solution that will protect the most whales where there is the greatest risk of entanglement,” Jake O’Neill, spokesman for the Conservation Law Foundation, said in an email. “We understand the closure may be a hardship to some fishermen, and we’re committed to working together to protect critically endangered right whales while avoiding any unnecessary impacts on fishing.”

There are only about 400 right whales, and they’ve declined even more in population recently. Entanglement in lobster fishing gear off Cape Cod, where the whales have been gathering, can mean death.

The whales were hunted nearly to extinction during the commercial whaling era; their name comes from whalers who identified them as the “right” whale to hunt. They move slowly, and their carcasses float.


Banning vertical lines would make lobstering difficult, if not impossible. But it’s necessary, the environmental groups say in their brief, to remedy the “irreparable harm” that could come to the whales, which face “a very real prospect of extinction.”

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is a party to the court case, and has until next month to respond.

Industry members say they want to protect both the fishery and the whales. Both sides agree that the discussion over how to do so will last months.

Representatives of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association couldn’t be reached for an interview Saturday, but on its website, the group outlines steps lobstermen have taken to make their fishing gear safer for whales or remove it from well-traveled areas.

The association has also raised $50,000 of a desired $500,000 for a legal defense fund in the case.

“The judge could close one of the world’s most sustainable fisheries and we cannot let that happen,” Executive Director Patrice McCarron said in response to the April court decision, urging those who support the industry to donate.

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