Right Whale Maine Lobster Fishing

In this Wednesday, July 25, 2018 file photo, lobster fishing boats head out to sea on a foggy morning off South Portland, Maine. 

(The Center Square) – Maine’s leaders are welcoming a court-imposed two year delay of federal whale protection rules that are expected to impact the state's lucrative lobster industry. 

In a ruling issued last Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg said new fisheries rules aimed at protecting critically endangered North Atlantic right whales will be delayed until December 2024, to give the federal government additional time to design them.

The delay was welcomed news to Maine's political leaders, who have argued the new rules would be devastating to the state's storied lobster industry. 

Gov. Janet Mills and members of the state's congressional delegation issued a statement Sunday, saying a "two-year-delay is better than no delay" but said the ruling "fails to address the underlying issue: NOAA's regulations have created a crisis that threatens the livelihood of thousands of hardworking Mainers without meaningfully protecting right whales." 

"There has never been a right whale death attributed to Maine lobster gear, yet NOAA has continually refused to follow the science, and has relentlessly targeted our lobster industry," they said. "NOAA must use this pause to carefully review the data and propose an updated rule that reflects the reality in the Gulf of Maine."

The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups in 2018, arguing the federal National Marine Fishery Service is violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing lobstermen to use vertical lines that have been known to cause entanglements.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new whale protection rules, which were finalized this year, would 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 plan will allow “buoyless” or "ropeless" fishing gear—a new, and more costly technology that brings lobster traps to the surface using wireless signals.

Scientists say North Atlantic right whales are at risk from ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear. The population of right whales has dwindled to about 360. The species has also been hindered by poor reproduction and several years of high mortality, research has shown.

Environmental activists have been pressuring fisheries managers to ban commercial fishing nets and gear in state waters to prevent entanglements of whales and turtles.

But commercial fishermen say the new whale protection regulations will imperil an industry that is already struggling amid stringent regulation and closures of fishing areas.

Maine officials point to federal data showing the state's lobster fishery hasn't documented an entanglement with a North Atlantic right whale in more than 18 years. 

Maine's lobster fishery is one of the most valuable fisheries in the U.S., and was worth more than $900 million at the docks last year, according to industry figures.