Legal challenges hanging over federal right whale protections

Fewer than 370 right whales are known to still be alive
Published: Oct. 6, 2021 at 8:03 PM EDT
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BANGOR, Maine (WABI) - Later this month, a stretch of federal waters off the coast of Maine will become temporarily off-limits for lobster fishing.

The seasonal closure is part of a new set of regulations aimed at protecting the endangered right whale population.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, there are fewer than 370 right whales left in the world.

The marine mammals are native to Maine waters, traveling between coastal Nova Scotia and New England to feed and breed.

Research shows as many as four out of every five right whales show signs of injury from fishing line entanglement.

Along with the seasonal closure of some federal waters, the new regulations also limit the use of fixed-line lobster traps.

Last month, the Maine Lobstermen Association filed a lawsuit to block the new regulations from taking hold, arguing the rules unfairly target the state’s half-a-billion-dollar lobster industry. Many documented right whale deaths happen outside of U.S. jurisdiction in Canada.

“It is actually not going to reverse the decline of the species, but it will wipe out our fishery,” said Patrice McCarron, the association’s executive director. “”We really feel like we’ve been singled out and wrongfully so.”

NOAA tracks right whale deaths and injuries from fishing entanglements and ship strikes. Between 2012 and 2016, no right whale deaths or inures were recorded in Maine Waters.

The last known entanglement to happen in Maine was in 2004, an incident which that whale survived.

Sean Mahoney, vice president of the Conservation Legal Foundation, argues that just because entanglements are not reported in Maine, does not mean they do not happen.

He said even when those entanglements are not fatal, the resulting injuries can make it harder for the few remaining right whales to eat and breed.

“More are dying every year and they will go extinct unless we do something,” Mahoney said.

This week, the Conservation Legal Foundation announced they were intervening in the legal challenges against these new regulations, arguing they do not go far enough to reduce the risk of future right whale deaths.

“Closing certain areas to fishing when high numbers of right whales are present is the most effective way to reduce risk,” Conservation Legal Foundation senior attorney Erica Fuller wrote in a statement. “By intervening in this case, we will be pushing for this regulation to remain intact.”

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