The federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) may become the subject of yet another lawsuit if it moves forward with its planned expansion of a restricted fishing zone.
The New England Fishermen’s Stewardship Association (NEFSA) announced this week that should NOAA finalize an expansion of the Massachusetts Restricted Area (MRA), the organization will challenge the agency’s decision in court.
NOAA is proposing to make permanent the closure of the “wedge” sector — a 200 square mile area located between two sections of the MRA.
Up until this point, closures of the wedge have only ever been temporary.
Currently the MRA encompasses more than 9,000 square miles of water off the cost of Massachusetts.
Since 2015, the use of lobstering equipment has been banned in certain areas off the coast of the state in the name of protecting the North American Right Whale, a highly endangered species.
According to NOAA, entanglement with fishing gear is one of the primary threats to the Right Whale’s existence, thereby justifying the closure of these wide swaths of ocean.
Lobstermen have argued that the proposed regulatory changes would be unduly burdensome for coastal fishing communities in the area.
“The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association (MLA) continues to fight the closure of the wedge in Massachusetts due to the long-term implications such an arbitrary and capricious action can have on the commercial lobster industry,” the MLA said in a recent press release. “We will continue to take the necessary legal action to stop this unwarranted and unjust action as the commercial lobstermen in Massachusetts continue to bear the brunt of these closures.”
Earlier this year, NOAA implemented the temporary closure of the “wedge” sector on account of an aggregation of right whales in the area.
This was the second time in a two-year period that NOAA implemented an emergency closure there, and the agency is now moving to make the closure permanent, adding this tract of water to the existing MRA.
The NEFSA and the MLA released a joint statement addressing this proposition.
“NOAA is expanding the restricted area to protect the North Atlantic right whale, an endangered marine mammal,” the release said. “The agency baselessly blames lobstermen for right whale deaths, citing entanglements with fishing gear.”
As of now, it is not yet certain whether NOAA will actually move forward with the MRA’s expansion to include the “wedge” sector, particularly given the intense pushback from the lobstering industry.
Earlier this year, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association was awarded a victory by the federal court of appeals in their lawsuit against NOAA alleging that the agency based its regulatory decisions on inaccurate and insufficient research that unfairly overestimated the impact that their equipment had on the right whale’s well-being.
The federal judge in that case ruled that it was not permissible for NOAA to rely “upon worst-case scenarios or pessimistic assumptions” when developing the scientific basis for their regulations.
If NOAA does opt to finalize the MRA’s expansion to include the “wedge” zone, the agency will likely find itself back in the courtroom fighting yet another lawsuit, this time from the NEFSA.