(The Center Square) – A federal judge has rejected a lawsuit by Maine lobstermen seeking to block new regulations meant to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
The Maine Lobstermen's Association filed the lawsuit to block new regulations that will require fishermen to make gear modifications to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water and will set a 950-square-mile section of the Gulf of Maine that will be off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January.
The regulations, finalized in August, will require buoyless or “ropeless” fishing gear – a new and costly technology that brings lobster traps to the surface using wireless signals.
But on Thursday, a U.S. District Judge in the District of Columbia issued a ruling rejecting the lawsuit and siding with the National Marine Fisheries Service that the rules are "not arbitrary" and should be allowed to go into effect.
Gov. Janet Mills, whose administration sided with fishermen in the legal fight, called the ruling "disappointing" and accused federal fisheries regulators of ignoring the science about whale entanglements in the region.
"Maine lobstermen care about the endangered right whale and have undertaken substantial actions to protect them at great personal expense; but the federal government’s regulations are simply not based on sound science or proven fact," Mills said in a statement.
Mills said there hasn't been a documented interaction between a North Atlantic right whale and lobster gear in the waters off Maine in nearly 20 years.
"This federal court decision, so out of touch with reality, adds insult to injury to an industry that supports the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Maine families," Mills added.
In its lawsuit, the association argued the new whale protection regulations will doom an industry that is already struggling amid stringent regulation and closures of fishing areas.
"Unfortunately, these punishing measures will provide no appreciable benefit for North Atlantic right whale while at the same time decimating the main lobster fishery," lawyers for the association wrote in the 32-page complaint.
The association's lawsuit pointed out that the new restrictions won't affect the Canadian shipping industry, or lobster and crab trap fishing fleets, which aren't subject to the scrutiny.
North Atlantic right whales, driven to the brink of extinction in the 20th century by whalers, and are more recently at risk from ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.
Scientists say the population of right whales has dwindled to about 340. The species has also been hindered by poor reproduction and years of high mortality, research has shown.
Environmental activists have been pressuring fisheries managers for years to ban commercial fishing nets and gear in state waters to prevent entanglements of whales and turtles.
The lawsuit is the latest in a flurry of legal activity surrounding the new regulations aimed at protecting the critically endangered species.
In June, a U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia ruled that federal fisheries regulators are violating the law by failing to protect right whales.