NOAA violated federal law by not doing enough to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from entanglements caused by lobster fishing gear, a federal judge said Friday.
In his ruling, Judge James Boasberg of the US District Court for the District of Columbia said the agency violated both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). ) when it issued a biological opinion and final rule that changed gear requirements last year.
Boasberg declared both the biological view and the rule “invalid” and said more needs to be done to protect the whales.
The judge acknowledged that “this may appear to be a harsh outcome” for both NOAA Fisheries and the lobster industry, but added that “no player here…operates free from the stringent requirements imposed by the MMPA and ESA.”
NOAA declined to comment.
The ruling marked a victory for the Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Defenders of Wildlife, groups that first sued NOAA in early 2018 over a prior biological opinion.
“The court’s decision acknowledges what NOAA Fisheries has ignored for decades: that Congress clearly intended to protect right whales from the entanglements in lobster gear that are driving the species to extinction as surely as possible.” whaling almost did,” said Jane Davenport, lead attorney for Defenders. of Wildlife.
Davenport said the opinion represented “the course correction the agency needs to put both the species and the fishery on a path toward sustainability and coexistence.”
According to conservation groups, only 336 of the whales remain, down from an estimated population of 455 in 2018.
Even with the change made last year, they said, NOAA estimated that US fisheries could still entangle more than 15 percent of the right whale population each year.
Kristen Monsell, legal director for oceans at the Center for Biological Diversity, called the ruling “a major victory in the fight to save these critically endangered whales from extinction.”
“Lobster gear is a deadly threat to right whales, and the courts are telling the federal government to stop stalling and start taking real action,” Monsell said. “The Biden administration must work much harder to help the industry prevent these agonizing and deadly entanglements.”
NOAA has drawn criticism from both environmentalists and the lobster industry for its new rules.
In May, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) cited the new regulations when she temporarily suspended President Biden’s nominee for NOAA’s No. 2 spot, delaying an expedited vote on Jainey Bavishi, a leading New York weather expert. York.
Collins, who lifted the suspension last month, said NOAA’s new rules were too onerous and would threaten the state’s vital industry, noting that no right whales had died from fishing entanglements in the state (green cableJune 24).
In a statement this morning, Virginia Olsen of the Maine Lobstering Union said Canadian fisheries “are the source of nearly every known cause of entanglement.” She added that if NOAA doesn’t start “paying attention” to better science, both the right whale population and the US lobster industry “will be extinct.”
In his ruling, the judge said he wanted “more information” about a remedy in the case and ordered NOAA and conservation groups to return to court on July 22.
“The court’s findings at this time do not dictate that it should immediately close the US lobster fishery; in fact, he is aware of the heavy blow he would inflict,” the judge wrote.