The Maine Department of Marine Resources has been granted “intervenor” status in a federal lawsuit brought by the Maine Lobstermen’s Association against federal regulators over new lobstering restrictions intended to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Gov. Janet Mills’ office said Thursday that it sought to intervene in the lawsuit before the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., “to stand up for the lobster industry and its hardworking men and women in the face of the federal government’s burdensome proposal.”

An intervenor is a party to a lawsuit that is recognized by the court but is neither a plaintiff nor a defendant. Intervenors can file briefs and make arguments in the case.

“There’s never been a known right whale mortality associated with the Maine lobster fishery, and there have been zero known right whale entanglements associated with Maine lobster gear in almost two decades,” Mills said in a statement. “Despite these facts and regardless of our lobster industry’s proven commitment to conservation, the National Marine Fisheries Service has pushed forward with regulations that will be devastating to our lobster industry and to our way of life.”

The Lobsterman’s Association said it welcomed the state’s support “in what truly is a fight for the future of Maine’s lobster industry and our way of life,” association spokesman Kevin Kelley said Thursday. The association has also launched a $10 million fundraising campaign to cover the legal costs of the lawsuit.

The organization filed suit because it believes proposed regulations for lobstermen aren’t based on sound science and wants federal officials to work with the industry to create “a solution that would save the whales and protect Maine’s critical lobster industry,” Kelley said.

In August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a new set of rules for New England’s lobster fishery aimed at reducing the risk to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and other whale species. Scientists believe there are fewer than 340 right whales left worldwide, so the species has become a flashpoint among environmentalists, federal regulators and fishermen because of the whales’ tendency to become entangled in fishing gear.

The goal is to reduce the risk to the whales by at least 60 percent.

The new rules require lobstermen to string more traps on a single rope and to use weaker ropes that allow entangled whales to break free, and it has put more than 950 square miles of the Gulf of Maine off-limits to traditional lobstering each year from October through January – the area’s most lucrative season. Lobster and crab fishermen also must add state-specific color markings to gear, a requirement officials believed the state had already met in 2020. However, the final rule included additional changes to the state’s gear-marking systems, blindsiding government and industry officials, as well as fishermen.

The gear modifications required by the rule will go into effect May 1, which is the start of the American lobster/Jonah crab fishing year. The changes to the seasonally restricted areas already took effect despite ongoing legal challenges.

Many industry officials worry that the changes will cause undue harm to the lobster fishery, which is the backbone of Maine’s fishing industry. The new rules were criticized by all sides in the debate: conservation groups pushing for stronger safeguards for whales, lobstermen who feel wrongly targeted and Maine political leaders who are fiercely protective of the state’s iconic lobster industry.

In the federal lawsuit, “Maine Lobstermen’s Association v National Marine Fisheries Service,” the plaintiffs assert that the fisheries service’s “biological opinion,” the basis for the new rules, is unlawful. They argue that the service acted arbitrarily by failing to rely on the best available scientific information and by failing to account for the positive impact of conservation measures already adopted by the Maine lobster fishery.

“Over decades, the Maine lobster fishery has adopted strong conservation measures to protect right whales. The result of this longstanding commitment should not be ignored by federal regulators,” said Department of Marine Resources Commissioner Patrick Keliher in a statement. “The Maine lobster fishery has proven its commitment to conservation, but these new standards threaten its future and jeopardize a cornerstone of our state’s economy.”

Kelley said having a state agency join the lawsuit “edifies our claims” that federal regulators are not using the best science and are making inaccurate assumptions with their regulations on the industry.

The agency’s participation could “strengthen our argument considerably,” he said, and “adds credibility to our claims. Essentially, more credible voices on our side does help.”

Kelley added that the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association also has been granted intervenor status on behalf of the plaintiffs.


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