The Maine Lobstermen’s Association sued federal fisheries regulators Monday to force a review of new rules intended to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales, claiming the restrictions are based on flawed science, pose an existential threat to their industry and will not shield whales from extinction.

Meanwhile, three lobster companies filed a separate suit Monday that asks a court to force regulators to review a seasonal closure in the Gulf of Maine recently created to protect the whales.

The two lawsuits continue a pitched battle between fishermen, conservation groups and the federal government over procedures to protect the critically endangered right whales, which tend to get tangled in fishing gear.

The Lobstermen’s Association suit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., takes aim at a biological opinion published by the National Marine Fisheries Service in May. The fisheries service is named as a defendant along with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and fisheries service Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Janet Coit.

The biological opinion served as the basis for new regulations on the use of lobster trapping equipment and the four-month seasonal closure of a 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine that is set to go into effect next month to protect the endangered whales. Only about 360 of the whales remain, and the plan calls for a 98 percent risk reduction of serious injury and mortality in the coming decade.

Since 2017, 34 right whales have been killed, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. An earlier estimate of 33 deaths attributed 21 to Canada and 12 to the United States.

Eleven incidents were attributed to ship strikes, including at least two in U.S. waters, but none that can be linked to the Maine lobster industry. The most recent known Maine entanglement occurred in 2004, but the whale survived.

In its legal complaint, the lobstermen’s group argues regulators used flawed evidence and placed undue blame on Maine’s lobster industry for right whale deaths without acknowledging the impact of Canadian fisheries, Atlantic shipping and natural mortality, among other factors, on the endangered population. Decades of conservation work by Maine’s lobster industry, including a prohibition on floating lines and required weak line links intended to protect whales, also was ignored by the fisheries service, the lawsuit alleges.

In total, the Maine lobster industry does not pose a serious threat to right whales but will be crushed by new regulations, the association said in its legal complaint.

Should the “draconian mandate be imposed, the Maine lobster industry will not exist as we know it today and the opportunity for future generations to continue this proud heritage will be lost,” the complaint states.

Maine lobstermen raised the same concerns during the regulatory process, but their arguments fell on deaf ears, said Maine Lobstermen’s Association Executive Director Patrice McCarron.

“At this point, we feel like we are not left with any recourse,” McCarron said. “We feel very strongly that this plan is not going to save whales. They have overestimated the risk of the Maine lobster industry and we are truly at risk of being eliminated in 10 years.”

‘LOOKING FOR IT TO BE FIXED’

If successful, the lawsuit would require the marine fisheries service to reassess its biological opinion. The recently created rules would remain in place until new ones were developed with an updated review, McCarron said.

“We are not saying that everything in the final rule is bad, but there are things in it that do not work with available science,” McCarron said. “We are not looking for this to be thrown out – we are looking for it to be fixed.”

A New England representative for the marine fisheries service did not respond to an email with questions about the lawsuit Monday.

The revised biological opinion was ordered by a federal judge last year in response to a lawsuit filed in 2018 by conservation groups that claimed the government was not doing enough to protect right whales from the lobster industry. It led to the new conservation standards and rules to protect the population that were released in late August.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources, which opposes the federal restrictions, told legislators this month that it would not sue over the new rules, but would join the ongoing 2018 conservation case in order to assist in the effort against the plaintiffs.

On Monday, Gov. Janet Mills issued a statement saying Maine has been granted “intervenor” status in the case. An intervenor is neither a plaintiff nor a defendant but is recognized by the court as having an interest in the outcome of the lawsuit.

“Intervening in this case is a critically important step in the state’s efforts to support Maine’s vital lobster industry,” Mills said in the statement. “A court decision in the plaintiff’s favor could close Maine’s lobster fishery altogether – a completely unacceptable outcome that would be devastating to our lobstermen and their families and devastating to our coastal communities and our economy. We will fight tooth and nail to prevent that from happening.”

COMPANIES SUE OVER CLOSURE

Other groups are taking aim at the regulations, too. The Maine Lobster Union, a cooperative based in Trenton, Fox Island Lobster Co. on Vinalhaven, and Damon Family Lobster Co. in Stonington filed a joint lawsuit Monday in federal court in Portland to stop enforcement of the October-to-January seasonal closure.

Fisheries regulators created the seasonally restricted area in order to spread risk responsibility across multiple jurisdictions even though lobstering is far more important to Maine than to nearby states, the companies said in their legal complaint.

Moreover, right whale sightings in the area are extremely rare, and regulators did not evaluate the efficacy of existing regulations to prevent death and injury to whales, the complaint alleges.

While the closure will only impact about 120 vessels – the Lobstermen’s Association has over 1,200 members – it comes at the most lucrative fishing time in the restricted area. Lobster harvesting with high-tech “ropeless” technology is allowed, but no one in Maine uses it.

“What we are seeking is injunctive relief to pause the enforcement of this closure and hopefully get a final rule revision to it that can achieve the objective of protecting the whales without the collateral damage it would inflict as it is now,” said Thima Mina, an attorney representing the lobster companies.

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