By Ray Routhier and Hannah LaClaire
Portland Press Herald
BAR HARBOR — The U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 3 denied a request to lift fishing restrictions in the Gulf of Maine aimed at protecting North Atlantic right whales, leaving Maine lobster harvesters unsure of what recourse they have.
Justice Stephen Breyer, tasked with handling the emergency filing, rejected the request without comment, The Hill newspaper reported. Virginia Olsen, a lobsterman and member of the Maine Lobstering Union, said Friday night that union members had not seen a copy of the ruling. Until they do and talk to their legal team, union members do not know what further legal steps they might take. She also said the union would have no comment on the ruling by Breyer until they discussed it with their lawyers.
The Maine Lobstering Union had filed an emergency application on Nov. 24 asking the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate a lower court ruling and reopen a roughly 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine. The area is scheduled to be closed through January – and every subsequent October through January – in an effort to protect the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. There are estimated to be fewer than 340 of the whales remaining and fewer than 100 breeding females, according to the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website.
When the union filed its petition, Olsen said at the time members would continue fighting to save lobstering jobs and the communities in Maine that depend on them.
“Generations of Mainers have taken pride in sustainably cultivating the world’s best lobster while simultaneously protecting the right whales,” Olsen said in the statement in November. “The decision to close Maine’s waters to this time-honored industry is unfortunately based on misguided and incomplete science.”
Members of the lobster industry in Maine have been battling with conservationists over the restrictions for months. In a legal complaint in U.S. District Court in October, the union and other industry businesses argued that the National Marine Fisheries Service did not use the best available information when it created the new rules, which are intended to reduce the risk to the whales by at least 60 percent.
Alfred Frawley, an attorney for the union, said the agency needs to collect more data. U.S. District Judge Lance E. Walker granted a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, halting the closure until the details and science behind it could be further scrutinized.
The Fisheries Service and a group of conservationists appealed to the U.S. District Court in Bangor, asking the court to permit the closure while it reviewed the preliminary injunction, citing new information that the right whale population had declined by another 10 percent last year, from 366 in 2019 to 336 in 2020.
The District Court denied the motion, so the group moved for similar relief before the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. The court granted the appeal last month, lifting the district court’s injunction and giving the fishermen two weeks to remove their gear from the restricted area, a window that industry officials criticized for being too narrow.
The Supreme Court’s rejection of the union’s emergency filing means the closure will remain in effect.
The court “was right to reject this unfounded attempt to halt reasonable efforts to protect one of the planet’s most endangered animals,” Kristen Monsell, the oceans legal director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Associated Press.
“Right whales are on the brink of extinction, and they shouldn’t be at risk of being entangled and killed by lobster gear,” Monsell said.