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Federal appeals court reinstates seasonal closure of lobster fishing waters in Gulf of Maine

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In a blow to Maine’s lobster fishermen, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reinstated a seasonal closure of approximately 1,000 square miles of federally-managed fishing waters in the Gulf of Maine.

The  Lobster Management Area 1 (LMA1) area was the subject of a rule released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in late August. As part of a plan to protect North Atlantic right whales, which are listed as endangered by the Endangered Species Act, the rule closed the LMA 1 area between October and January and instituted new gear marking requirements for fishermen operating in federal waters.

In October, a U.S. District Court judge granted injunctive relief in a lawsuit brought by the Maine Lobsterman’s Union and a group of other plaintiffs representing Maine lobstering interests. Judge Lance Walker blocked implantation of the seasonal closure of the fisheries while the lawsuit was ongoing.

But the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) appealed the stay, asking the seasonal closure be allowed to go into effect while the court case proceeds.

The First Circuit sided with the NMFS, stating “the district court misapprehended the record and over-stepped its role in rejecting the judgments of the agency that Congress has charged with protecting endangered marine mammals.”

The court also found that allowing the injunction to remain in place will “likely cause irreparable harm in the form of preventing a federal agency from undertaking its congressionally assigned task of assuring the right whales are protected from a critical risk of death.”

The First Circuit’s ruling was quickly denounced by Gov. Janet Mills and Maine Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher.

“This is a deeply disappointing result. This sudden closure will cause significant economic hardship for Maine’s lobster industry, will cost hundreds of fishermen millions of dollars, and will have a profound impact on businesses that rely on landings during the lucrative late fall and winter months,” Mills said in a press release.

Keliher also commented on the safety decisions potentially posed to the lobster industry by the First Circuit’s ruling.

“Moving gear around 30 miles off-shore at this time of the year also poses a serious safety risk for fishermen. Fishermen’s lives are at stake and NOAA and the courts have an obligation to take fisherman safety into concern when they make these decisions,” Keliher said in a statement.

The ruling came the same day the Maine Lobstermen’s Association announced its strategy, including a three-year, $10 million fundraising campaign to cover legal costs, to fight against the federal regulations.

On top of the legal action it has already taken, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association plans to work with scientists to make sure right whale conservation plans are using “the most up-to-date, cutting edge science as its basis.” The group also plans to work with lobstermen to develop “innovative gear” that protects both whales and the interest of lobster fishermen. 

They also plan to “communicate with the public to be sure there is general awareness of the serious threat to the Maine lobster industry and the thousands of Maine small businesses that would be negatively affected or ruined by the federal regulation.”

About Katherine Revello

Katherine Revello is a reporter for The Maine Wire. She has degrees in journalism and political science from the University of Maine. Her writing has appeared in Reason, The Washington Examiner, and various other publications. Got news tips? Contact Katherine at krevello@mainepolicy.org.

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