The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service’s final ruling to prohibit the use of lobster gear such as buoy lines in the harvest of lobsters off the coast of Maine has received a temporary restraining order from District Court judge Lance Walker. This means that North American lobster fishermen will be able to carry on with business as usual within the prime 967 square mile offshore of the Gulf of Maine through January. This area was the focus of the original final ruling because this was thought to be a “hotspot” for North American right whales to congregate and pass through, however this was contested as there was little evidence supporting this. Even the NMFS own predictive models forecast very low percentages of right whale presence during the closure. The North American right whale gets its name from ancient whaling boats referring to them as the ‘right whale to catch’ because they can float postmortem unlike most whales. This made them the easiest to haul into their boats and as a result left them highly endangered and are still struggling, seeing an 30% decrease in population over the last 20 years bringing total numbers to be estimated below 350. The ruling initially was supposed to last from October 18 to January, with the goal being to minimize the impact their gear had on the whale population.
The Maine Lobstering Union argued that there was not enough substantial evidence showing that the restriction of lobster gear would impact the whale population and habitat, and the judge agreed. Judge Walker said he felt there were certain economic harms that would result from allowing the closure, far outweighing the unknown and uncertain benefits it would have to the whales. He also stated that this ruling was made on “markedly thin statistical modeling methodology” which strays from their previous approach which required justification for the closures backed by known and predictable patterns as well as concrete evidence. The ruling instead was driven by a whale density model meant to identify areas of higher risk where a closure would see the highest gain in risk reduction. Wholesalers and lobstermen are losing upwards of $4 million for each season they cannot fish and puts them in jeopardy of going out of business. Maines congressional delegation is now seeking support of the Biden administration to stop the enforcement of this new rule after Judge Walker approved the TRO. They are also stating that there was flawed and incomplete data in which the decision of this ruling was made upon. The delegation highlighted the inevitable harm to the economy as well as doing very little to actually protect the whales.
There has been a lot of uncertainty in the fishing industry for fishermen over the last two years, and has a lot of them asking is it worth it? The impact the pandemic had on the overall economy and the dramatic change in demand as a result left fishermen without anywhere to sell their catch. The high operational cost to be a fisherman is tolling, between boat maintenance, oil prices, equipment upkeep, labor costs and most importantly time, it is not an easy job and requires a deep passion for fishing to succeed. Add in elements of catch limits, equipment restrictions and fishery closures into the uncertainty fishermen face, and the stress felt to meet quotas each year is immense. The goal is to catch and sell as much as they can during the season, to sustain them through the off season because for a lot of people fishing is their only source of income. When agencies such as the NOAA can come in and shut down nearly entire fisheries, it not only puts incredible stress on the fishermen in these areas, but on entire communities. Fishing communities can often be remote and rely entirely on their fishing season to stimulate their economy, so a seasonal closure could be catastrophic.
Several appeals to Judge Walker’s TRO have since been filed by the secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo and the NMFS, as well as the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, to restore the prohibition of lobster gear use. These appeals try to reiterate the migration pattern of the right whales, and highlight seasonal cooling of coastal Maine waters, pushing lobsters into deeper waters. The MLU and other industry companies must now file a federal court response to the TRO appeal.