AUGUSTA, ME — In a major setback to Maine’s besieged lobster industry, a federal appeals court in Boston reinstated equipment restrictions on Tuesday that effectively shuts down about 967 square miles of winter lobstering waters in the Gulf of Maine to state fisherman.
The ruling, made by a three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, lifted the stay against the National Marine Fisheries Service that was issued by Federal District Court Judge Lance Walker in Bangor in October. The suit against the NMFS was brought by the Maine Lobstering Union, along with Fox Island Lobster Company in Stonington.
The fight for Maine’s lobster industry began when the NMFS issued new rules on Aug. 31 that closed a portion of the fishing area known as LMA1, an offshore area stretching from just south of Bath to Blue Hill. The rules prohibited using buoy lines in the area from October to January in an attempt to reduce the risk of entangling right whales, despite the fact that there hasn’t been a right whale entanglement due to lobster equipment in nearly two decades.
In September, the Mills administration was successful in gaining intervenor status to join the fight against fishery closures via the Center for Biological Diversity v. Ross case in the D.C. Circuit court. While CBD is a separate environmental group that has advocated for the complete closure of the fisheries along a majority of the New England coast to protect whales, NMFS is a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
According the to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, lobstering in Maine accounted for about 48 percent of all commercial landings by poundage in 2020, yet it represents nearly 80 percent of the dollar value of all commercial landings in Maine. In 2020, that was worth nearly $406 million. The next nearest species is clams, which accounted for almost $16 million in 2020.
In a press conference on Tuesday, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said the new federal rules, if allowed to stand, threaten to kill the entire industry. In addition to the nearly half billion dollars in landings, the industry supports nearly 10,000 jobs and contributes about $ 2 million annually to the state’s economy. “We’re saddened that the previous court decision to stay the federal government’s onerous and unnecessary fishing restrictions was lifted by an appeals court in Boston, a court that apparently has no clue what the lobster industry means to our fishermen and to the coastal towns that depend upon it,” said Senate Republican Leader Jeff Timberlake (R-Androscoggin). “While we are pleased that the Mills administration has taken an active stance against the Biden administration in their attempts at killing our lobster fishing industry, more must be done to ensure the survival of one of our most precious industries against a federal government that is intent on destroying it.”