BAR HARBOR — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is pondering its options after a federal court judge put the agency’s plans for a closure of a large swath of offshore fishing ground on hold earlier this month.
NOAA attorney Chip Lynch told the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission last week that the agency is assessing whether to appeal Maine U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker’s decision to stop the closure of 967 square miles of fishing ground to traditional lobstering.
“I’ve read the ruling,” Lynch said before a presentation from the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team. “There’s certainly grounds for an appeal.”
The Trenton-based Maine Lobstering Union, Damon Family Lobster Co. in Stonington, and a Vinalhaven lobster dealer all sued over the closure, which was supposed to start on Oct. 18. It was enacted by NOAA to help protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The trio argued that the closure was not based on the best available science and called on it to be delayed.
Walker said that the modeling system that NOAA used to justify the closure appeared “markedly thin” and said that it was “troublesome” that the agency had departed from its practice of using “concrete evidence.”
NOAA said the closure was included in the new rules because of the high density of whales and fishing lines in the water in the area.
The judge granted a temporary restraining order allowing lobstering to continue in the area, which is about 30 miles offshore and runs from west of Mount Desert Island to Casco Bay. Lynch said that NOAA was trying to figure out what the fallout would be from Walker allowing lobstering to continue.
Patrick Keliher, the head of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, asked if that meant additional action by NOAA would be needed to further reduce risk for the whales in light of the loss of the closure.
NOAA will have to “examine the potential ramifications of this decision, including potential far reaching unintended consequences to the fishery, in order to find a path forward,” Lynch said. “My thinking at this point in time is that all options and responses are on the table.”
Walker’s decision has drawn praise from lobstermen and Maine politicians.
“The judge’s decision acts on arguments that lobstermen have been making for years now: There is simply not hard data to support the idea that Maine lobster gear is killing right whales,” said U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) in a statement.
Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which has also filed a lawsuit over rules from NOAA, said the decision was welcome news as it would prevent unnecessary harm to hundreds of Maine lobstermen and their communities.
“But make no mistake, this important victory is just one step in a long fight we must pursue against the federal government’s 10-year whale plan that would decimate our industry,” she said.
Conservation groups that have been pushing for stricter rules were not happy with the decision to allow lobstering to continue in this offshore area. One group said this raises questions about federal authorization of the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries and should cause federal regulators to consider if these fisheries can continue.
The Conservation Law Foundation, which filed the lawsuit that set off the need for new whale regulations, said it was “incredibly disappointing” that Walker substituted his own opinion on the closure and ignored the scientists who have worked on identifying high risk areas.
Lynch said these kinds of legal battles can take a long time, possibly a couple of years to work through the court system.
But for many conservation groups, they felt that the critically endangered whales needed protection now.
“These critically endangered right whales are depending on the immediate protections of this four-month closure,” CLF wrote in a statement. “(T)hey don’t have years to wait.”