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Federal appeals court reinstates lobster gear restrictions off Maine's coast

Maine Lobsters
Robert F. Bukaty
FILE- In this Sept. 21, 2020 file photo, a sternman checks a lobster while fishing off South Portland, Maine. The Maine Department of Marine Resources said Wednesday fishermen caught more than 96 million pounds of lobsters in 2020.

A federal appeals court is reinstating restrictions on fishing gear in a nearly 1,000-square-mile swathe of ocean off Maine's coast. It's a blow to Maine's lobstermen and a victory for advocates for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

In October, in an effort to protect the roughly 340 right whales remaining on the planet from potentially deadly entanglements with fishing gear, the federal government imposed a four-month restriction on the use of trap-rope in the area. Lobstermen consider the area prime winter fishing grounds, but the rope-ban would effectively bar 60 or more boats from fishing there. Before the restrictions took effect, the Maine Lobstering Union won a stay from a U.S. district judge in Bangor.

But Late Tuesday, a federal appeals court in Boston ruled that the lower court overstepped its authority. The court said that while the stakes are high on both sides, Congress had "placed its thumb on the scales" for endangered species such as the right whales.

Erica Fuller, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, was elated.

"To the extent the government identified these hotspots where closures were absolutely necessary for one reason or another,  it was important to support additional protections for these areas, including getting line out of the water where they had to get it out of the water," Fuller said.

David Sullivan, a top official with the Maine Lobstering Union, said in a text message that he was disgusted and frustrated. The union, he said, would meet on Wednesday to consider next steps.

The appeals court is calling on the Bangor judge, Lance Walker, to promptly resolve any disputes over how quickly lobstermen must remove gear from the reinstated restriction zone.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.