Lobster Harvesting Ban Reinstated Off Maine Coast in Effort to Protect Rare Whales

A U.S. appeals court reinstated a ban on lobster harvesting off the coast of Maine to try to help prevent the extinction of endangered North Atlantic right whales.

A month ago, the Maine Lobstering Union won emergency relief to stop this ban, which affects hundreds of miles of fishing waters. They cited the economic damage to the lobstering community as a reason for fighting the ban.

The organization also asserted that the ban is not "based on science," and would not significantly help the whales.

However, the decision was short-lived, as the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday to reinstate the closure. In an Associated Press report, the court said removing the ban would prevent them from protecting the whales from getting tangled in the fishing gear.

The court ruled that the government's role is "assuring the right whales are protected from a critical risk of death."

According to the AP, the whales number less than 340 and are vulnerable to gear entanglement as well as getting hit by large ships.

This decision will make approximately 950 square miles of the Gulf of Maine off-limits to lobster fishing from now until January.

According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whalers brought the North Atlantic right whale to the brink of extinction by the early 1890s. They have been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1970.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

North Atlantic right whale, Maine
FA federal appeals court on November 16 reinstated protections for endangered right whales in waters off New England. Above, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts, on March 28, 2018. Michael Dwyer, File/AP Photo

The appeals court's ruling sent the case back to the U.S. district court level to resolve any disputes that concern the removal of the banned gear from the restricted area. Previously, the district court ruled there was not enough evidence the whales gather in the area with enough frequency to render it a whale "hot spot."

The court's decision affirms that "reducing entanglements by prohibiting fishing in this area is critical to ensuring the survival of right whales," said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation.

Commercial fishing groups have criticized the National Marine Fisheries Service over the right whale rules and said the rules threaten to endanger the future of Maine's iconic fishery while failing to protect the whales.

The Maine Lobstermen's Association will continue to fight the fishing restrictions in court, said Patrice McCarron, the group's executive director.

"Nevertheless, it foreshadows the grave future our lobster fishery faces if NMFS's 10-year whale plan is not rescinded in favor of a plan based on science," McCarron said.

North Atlantic right whale, endangered species
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world's most endangered large whale species, with only an estimated 340 remaining. Above, a North Atlantic right whale swims in the waters of Cape Cod Bay April 14, 2019 near Provincetown, Massachusetts. Photo by Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images