Fishermen are buoyed by a federal court decision to delay for two years new restrictions on lobster gear aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Environmentalists had sought to force federal regulators to issue new rules within six months, but the National Marine Fisheries service said it needed until the end of 2024.

Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, a Winter Harbor fisherman and leader of the Republican House minority, said the ruling issued Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg giving regulators until December 2024 was good news for Maine lobstermen in the wake of several recent legal and public relations setbacks.

Before Thursday’s ruling, new restrictions could have been issued at any time, Faulkingham said, but now regulators can take their time crafting new rules based on sound science.

“Under the circumstances we’re in, that was really the best-case scenario,” Faulkingham said in a phone interview Friday. “We’re not out of the woods yet. There’s a long ways to go, but it was definitely a very hopeful decision.”

Boasberg’s ruling came on the heels of his July decision that new, stronger rules are needed to protect the North Atlantic right whale from extinction. The whales are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes.


Environmentalists and fishing industry members have long argued over the rules. Fishermen say that stricter rules could cripple Maine’s $725 million lobster industry, the state’s most popular and valuable seafood. Conservation groups have cited entanglement in gear as an existential threat to the whales, which number 340 and are in decline.

Regulations that went into effect in May require weakened ropes, more traps per vertical line, and seasonal lobstering bans in certain areas. The aim of the measures is to bring the whales’ risk of entanglement below a number known as the “potential biological removal rate,” or how many whales could be seriously injured or killed per year without driving the population to unsustainable levels.

However, conservation groups have pushed for the use of rope-free fishing gear to avoid entanglements, which are one of the two big threats to the whales, along with collisions with ships.

While the rules are focused on whale mortality, Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, said her group also had requested that the court set a deadline for regulators to address non-fatal entanglements of right whales, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

But the court decided against setting a deadline out of concern that it would effectively shut down the fishery, since mitigation measures, such as rope-free fishing gear, are not expected to be available until 2030.

Monsell disagreed, saying that setting a two-year deadline for nonlethal entanglements would “help motivate the changes that are necessary to make rope-free gear widespread.”


The court will revisit that issue in the future, she said.

“It kind of remains to be seen what the agency is going to do with respect to endangered species act compliance and how sublethal impacts will or will not be addressed,” Monsell said in a phone interview Friday night.

Lobstermen said the industry still faces a grave threat from rules that prevent them from fishing.

“The bottom line is the court’s decision provides us some additional time to ensure that a final whale plan is based on the best available science and commercial data, but not enough time to help recover right whales without needlessly sacrificing the Maine lobster fishery,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association.

North Atlantic right whales have been federally protected for decades but have been slow to recover from the commercial whaling era. The Marine Stewardship Council, which says it runs the largest seafood sustainability certification program in the world, said this week it will suspend its certification of Gulf of Maine lobster over concerns about harm to the whales.

The council says its certification program is used by high-volume lobster buyers such as Whole Foods Market, Hilton, Royal Caribbean, Walmart and McDonald’s. A trademarked blue-and-white “eco-label” indicates a fishery is well-managed, is not overfished, and does not harm other overfished or endangered species.


The council’s announcement came after Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch in September added the U.S. lobster fishery to a “red list” of seafood to avoid because, according to the group, lobster is harvested in ways that are likely to harm wildlife or the environment.

Maine lobstermen have long contended that they’re not seeing right whales in Maine waters. No right whale deaths have been attributed to the state’s lobster fishery and the last known entanglement was in 2004.

Overall, Monsell said she is pleased that the court recognized the need for stricter rules on lobster gear to protect right whales – even though it may take a little longer for those rules to be drafted.

“We’re happy to see that this ruling means there will be a new rule in place that will further reduce right whale mortality in the fishery,” she said. “They desperately need these protections.”


This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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