A federal judge in Maine on Saturday blocked a seasonal ban on traditional lobster fishing in a stretch of offshore waters in the Gulf of Maine that regulators say is needed to save the endangered North Atlantic right whale from extinction.

U.S. District Judge Lance Walker

In his 28-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Lance Walker said regulators had relied on “markedly thin” statistical modeling instead of hard evidence to show the nearly thousand-square-mile area they had planned to close was really a hot spot for the imperiled whale.

While the area targeted for closure may be a viable habitat for the right whale, there is no hard proof the whales actually gather there, or even pass through that part of the Gulf of Maine, with enough frequency to render it a “hotspot,” Walker wrote.

The National Marine Fisheries Service had only just this year deployed acoustic devices along the Maine coast that can detect the presence of right whales through their song, Walker noted. When available, such evidence of a hot spot is preferable to statistical likelihoods.

“I find the certain economic harms that would result from allowing this closure to go into effect outweigh the uncertain and unknown benefits of closing some of the richest fishing grounds in Maine for three months based on a prediction it might be a hotspot for right whale(s),” he wrote.

The Maine Lobstering Union, which is made up of about 200 fishermen, sought the temporary restraining order in a last-ditch legal effort to prevent a closure it claims would cripple the $1.4 billion lobster trade, which is the economic backbone of Maine’s coast.

If the closure had gone into effect, many of the union members would have lost their primary winter fishing grounds, resulting in a loss of 4 million pounds of union-harvested lobster every year – a loss that the union believes could have put it out of business.

“This victory by the Maine Lobstering Union is a significant step in protecting one of Maine’s most precious industries – lobstering,” said union attorney Alfred Frawley. “Our lobstermen have put generations of time, effort, and substantial financial resources into their craft. The lobstering industry is not only a treasure to Maine but a treasure to our American history.”

Along with the union, Fox Island Lobster Co. of Vinalhaven and Damon Family Lobster Co. of Stonington filed a joint lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service last month in an effort to block the roughly 967-square-mile, October-to-January seasonal closure.

“The regulations proposed by federal agencies would have had a chilling impact on communities throughout Maine,” Frawley said. “We will continue to push for science and data that reflect what is truly happening in our industry.”

The government’s attorneys, Taylor Mayhall and Alison Finnegan, told Walker in a hearing on Friday that the fisheries service used the best available science. The predictive modeling was based on hard data, including acoustic data and visual sightings from the past.

Taking time to analyze data collected this year would be a loss of valuable time for the whales, which now number fewer than 370, regulators say. The species will not survive if even a single whale dies from entanglement a year, they said.

As Erica Fuller, an attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, one of a handful of fishing and whale advocacy groups that have petitioned to be heard in this case, told Walker Friday, “We’re watching an extinction crisis in real time in front of us.”

The closure is a hotly contested part of a larger set of regulations issued in September by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aimed at reducing the right whales’ risk of deadly fishing gear entanglement by at least 60 percent.

The North Atlantic right whale has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when it bottomed out at 295 whales. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but poor calving, ship strikes and fishing entanglements, especially in Canada, sent its numbers tumbling again. Since 2017, a particularly deadly year for whales, regulators have recorded 34 right whale deaths – nine of those from entanglement in fishing gear. None of that gear, however, has been linked to Maine.

The government estimates that 62 fishing boats set their traps in the proposed closure area, which is an area about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island about 30 miles off the coast of Maine, while another 62 boats fish near the closed area and would likely suffer from a reduced catch when the displaced fishermen are forced to set their traps someplace else. The government estimates each of these fishing boats will suffer a 5 to 10 percent loss in earnings.

But fishing groups and the state of Maine say the number of impacted fishing boats and resulting losses is most likely far higher, with as many as 200 boats displaced, and some of them losing as much as half their annual earnings. That is because many offshore Maine fishermen make most of their money fishing for top-dollar winter lobster, when the supply remains limited but holiday demand is high.

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