A federal judge has ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to issue new rules protecting critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
In April, U.S District Court Judge James E. Boasberg ruled that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act when it authorized the American lobster fishery without appropriately analyzing its impact on right whales and issuing the legally required permit.
“This really holds the National Marine Fisheries Service’s feet to the fire,” said Erica Fuller, a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the environmental groups suing the federal agency to implement rules that reduce the risk of fatal entanglements. Finally, she said, a judge has set the stakes.
“At this point in time there is a line in the sand at which, ‘If you don’t get it done at this point in time, you risk closing the fisheries down,’” Fuller said.
The new rules, set to be issued May 31, 2021, will likely include fishing closures and gear replacements, with a goal to reduce the whales’ risk of fatal entanglements in fishing gear by 60 to 80 percent.
There are only about 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining, and at least 40 members of the species have been killed since the summer of 2017. Their leading cause of death is entanglement in rope and fishing gear.
In his ruling, the judge decided to allow the lobster fishery to continue using vertical buoy lines in a contested area off Nantucket until the rules are announced next spring. That portion of the decision was a small win for fishermen.
It was a disappointment to conservationists like Fuller, who said these whales are on the brink of extinction.
“Despite 50 years of federal protections, North Atlantic whales have not recovered,” she said. “And we don’t have a lot of time to waste.”