Members of Maine’s lobster industry pleaded with a federal judge Friday to throw out an impending seasonal closure in the Gulf of Maine intended to help protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from extinction, just days before it is set to take effect.

It’s a last-ditch legal effort to stop a change that the industry says will cause irreparable harm and trigger “the end of the lobster industry in this state as we know it.”

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker heard arguments Friday and is expected to decide on the issue in the “very near future,” but did not provide a target date, despite the fact that the closure is scheduled to begin Monday. 

The Maine Lobster Union, a Trenton-based cooperative, Fox Island Lobster Co. on Vinalhaven and Damon Family Lobster Co. in Stonington filed a joint lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service last month in an effort to stop enforcement of the roughly 967-square mile, October-to-January seasonal closure

The lobster groups argue that the closure, which they say is based on faulty science and flawed assumptions, will not provide any additional protection to the whales, but will put the lobster industry at risk. 

The seasonal closure is to be re-evaluated after three years, but according to Alfred Frawley, the plaintiffs’ attorney, the lobster industry doesn’t have that long. The groups are seeking emergency injunctive relief so regulators can take the time to collect better, more accurate and up-to-date data, he said.

“Lobstering is the lifeblood of the state,” Frawley told the judge. “By the time we look at this again … we don’t have that time. We’re done.”

The government’s attorneys, Taylor Mayhall and Alison Finnegan, argued that while the rule will regrettably have some economic impact on those who fish in the closure area, it’s a very small percentage of Maine’s overall lobster fishing fleet.

They said the fisheries service did use the best available science, and that taking more time to analyze more data, when they already know it’s an area where right whale activity has been detected in recent years, would be a loss of valuable time for the whales.

“It’s important that this season needed to be covered,” Mayhall said. Otherwise, they’d be “missing a whole window of opportunity” to take advantage of the reduced risk.

As Erica Fuller, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation and an intervenor in the case, put it, “We’re watching an extinction crisis in real time in front of us.”

The closure is a hotly contested piece of a larger set of rules released in September by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aimed at reducing the risk to right whales by at least 60 percent. 

Scientists believe there are only about 360 right whales left worldwide, but lobstermen have long contended that they are not seeing the whales in Maine waters. 

The last known entanglement in Maine waters was in 2004 and the whale survived. NOAA officials estimate that about 85 percent of right whales show signs of entanglements, though there is often no way to know where those entanglements occurred.

Still, Frawley said, just because Maine is responsible for roughly 95 percent of the lobstering lines in the water, it does not mean it should be blamed for the problem when the data do not back up such an assertion.

The lawsuit criticizes regulators for relying on a predictive model that splits unknown mortalities evenly between Canada and the United States and attributes all unknown entanglements to the lobster/trap pot fisheries, and doesn’t include surveys from Canadian waters or updated numbers following Canada’s implementation of protective measures in 2018. 

The agency needs to collect more data, Frawley argued, and consider the closure after analyzing aerial surveillance footage, acoustic monitors and gear distribution data, among other measures. 

He also said the closure isn’t necessary to meet the needed risk reduction target of 60 percent. As written, the plan anticipates a 69 percent reduction, and the Gulf of Maine closure is only responsible for about 6.6 percent of that, he noted.

Located about 30 miles offshore, the restricted area stretches from near Mount Desert Island to eastern Casco Bay and is expected to affect about 120 lobster harvesters – roughly 60 who will be displaced by the closure and another 60 who might be affected by the others relocating. 

The late fall and winter months aren’t traditionally the busy season for Maine lobstermen, but for offshore fishermen, the colder temperatures mean harder shells and higher prices, making it a lucrative time of year. 

Lobstermen who fish in the area say the defendants’ estimate of a 5 to 10 percent revenue reduction for those affected by the closure is way off the mark. They say the revenue losses could be closer to 50 percent. Lobster harvesters who don’t fish in the area have also expressed concern that there will be more gear conflicts and revenue losses when lobstermen who normally use the restricted area are pushed into territory where they don’t usually fish. 

The plan does allow for buoyless or “ropeless” fishing – a new and experimental technology that brings lobster traps to the surface using acoustic signals – but the technology has not been tested in Maine. It will require a special permit from the state Department of Marine Resources. 

Without those valuable fishing grounds, Frawley said, “the viability of Maine’s entire lobster industry hangs in the balance.” 

He painted a picture of fishermen unable to support their families, workers leaving to seek work elsewhere and coastal communities such as Stonington and Vinalhaven, which rely almost entirely on the lobstering industry, devastated and desolate. 

“This closure is going to act like a tidal wave,” Frawley said. 

It’s still unclear when Judge Walker will make his decision, but as a federal judge, he said, he has to give “great deference” to the federal agency, making it an uphill battle for the lobstering groups.


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