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A seasonal lobstering ban off Maine's coast was set to begin today. But a federal judge has temporarily halted it

Maine Lobsters
Robert F. Bukaty
In this Sept. 21, 2020 file photo, a sternman checks a lobster while fishing off South Portland, Maine.

A federal judge has temporarily blocked impending rules intended to protect endangered right whales. The rules would have closed nearly 1,000 square miles of prime fishing grounds to traditional lobster trap gear and rope off Maine's Coast.

Federal fisheries regulators had set the seasonal, four-month ban on lobster gear to begin Monday. It was to be the first step in a 10-year plan to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from dangerous entanglements with fishing gear and other threats.

But on Saturday, U.S. district judge Lance Walker, an appointee of former President Trump, granted a temporary injunction against the restrictions, while a challenge by the Maine Lobstering Union proceeds on the merits. Walker questioned the validity of statistical models used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to calculate the risk that whales would cross paths with lobster gear in the area.

It was a big moment for the industry in general and for the Trenton-based lobstering union that sought the restraining order. David Sullivan is one of the union's leaders: He says fishery closures, even when billed as limited in time or space, can have far-reaching effects.

"Even shoreside in Vinalhaven - Fox Island Lobster Company and Damon Family Lobster (in Stonington) that was also a part of this. The money they were going to lose, the people that they employ. I mean once you lose them they don't come back. And the infrastructure to support the fishermen on these islands once that goes away it doesn't come back. So it was big for all of us,” Sullivan says.

The ruling was a significant setback for the conservation community, which has been pushing for even stronger protections for the roughly 370 right whales remaining on the planet. One group says it throws into doubt the entire federal plan for whale recovery. It's a plan conservationists see as a legally required condition of federal approval for the lobster fishery to operate at all.

Gib Brogan manages the right whale campaign at Oceana, an international advocacy group.

"This brings up significant questions about the National Marine Fisheries Services ongoing authorization of these fisheries under the Endangered Species Act and should give the agency significant pause as they consider whether these fisheries are allowed to go forward,” Brogan says.

Stakeholders say it will likely take at least a month before initial filings will be ready for Judge Walker's review.

Sullivan praised lawmakers from both parties for meeting with the union and filing comments in support of the industry's complaint. But he also noted that Governor Janet Mills was not part of that effort.

"We didn't get any support out of the Governor's office," he said. "It's just a hard pill to swallow when we spent... hundreds thousands of dollars to try to help save this industry, and this (disputed area) will bring in millions and millions of dollars to the state in revenue."

In a statement, gov. Mills' spokesperson Lindsay Crete said, "We are surprised to hear Mr. Sullivan’s comments, which are disappointing and simply aren’t true." Crete listed several comments and letters from Mills to federal officials in defense of the industry, as well as her intervention in a separate legal case brought by conservation groups.

“The battle for Maine’s lobster industry is being waged on multiple fronts," Crete wrote. "(T)he Administration will continue to work closely with the industry on smart, complementary, and supportive approaches to defend this pivotal industry.”