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Judge dismisses case to ban lobster lines, but opens door to future right whale protections

Rob Martin, who has been fishing off his boat for the last 29 years, and his partner haul up a 150-pound end trap while ropeless lobster fishing in Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts.
Eve Zuckoff
Rob Martin and his partner haul up a 150-pound end trap while using ropeless lobster gear in Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts.

A federal judge may have delivered the legal roadmap to ban lobstermen from using vertical buoy lines in a long-awaited ruling this week.

The case centered around concerns that the lines, authorized by the state of Massachusetts, entangle and kill critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

But Judge Indira Talwani dismissed the case because, she wrote, the plaintiff Max Strahan, a controversial whale advocate, had questionable credibility in some instances and failed to prove that he has a personal stake, or standing, in the case, a critical component of the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for the state said the Baker-Polito Administration is “pleased” with the decision and will “continue the Commonwealth’s nation-leading efforts to protect the North American Right Whale.”

“The Commonwealth is fully committed to protecting right whales and continues to work with federal and state partners, conservation groups, and the fishing industry to protect this endangered species,” Craig Gilvarg, director of communications for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, wrote in an email.

But where Talwani rejected Strahan’s right to sue, she largely agreed with him on the merits of the case. Eventually, she wrote, if the standing issues are resolved, the state fails to receive an Incidental Take permit from the federal government, which it is in the process of seeking, and a case came before her again, she would move to “cease permitting the deployment of vertical buoy ropes in Massachusetts state waters.” 

Banning vertical buoy lines would effectively shut down the fishery. The only alternative currently for commercial lobstermen is ropeless fishing, but that technology isn’t fully regulated nor is it far enough along for widespread use, according to experts.

Strahan’s lawyer, Adam Keats, said the judge should not have based her dismissal on the “personality” of the plaintiff.

“What matters is the fact that the state is doing something that’s killing whales, and they need to stop because they're violating the law,” Keats said. “But unfortunately, our legal system is deeply, deeply flawed and the personalities of people who bring lawsuits matter. And in this case was the only thing that mattered.”

Keats said he couldn’t comment on whether Strahan would appeal, but noted his client is no stranger to the courtroom and saw this dismissal as a “hiccup” rather than a “roadblock.” Strahan has filed between 20-30 lawsuits seeking to protect endangered whales since 1994.

“This is definitely not a loss,” Keats said. “This is the beginning of the end of Massachusetts lobster industry killing right whales. The writing’s on the wall. Absolutely no question.” 

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.