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Federal officials rush to reimpose lobster gear restrictions off Maine's coast after an appeals court reinstated the ban

North Atlantic Right Whale entangled in lobster gear

Federal officials moved quickly Wednesday to reimpose restrictions on lobster gear in a nearly 1,000 square mile section of the ocean off Maine's coast. That comes less than 24 hours after a federal appeals court lifted a stay on the restrictions, which aim to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from potentially deadly entanglements in trap rope.

The federal ban on trap-rope in the area about 30 miles offshore was supposed to go into effect exactly one month ago, in an effort to protect the roughly 340 right whales remaining on the planet.

But in October the Trenton-based Maine Lobstering Union won a last-minute stay from a U.S district Court judge in Bangor. Then late Tuesday, a federal appeals court in Boston ruled that the lower court overstepped its authority.

Erica Fuller, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation, applauded the decision.

"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.

In lifting the stay, the appeals court said that while the stakes are high on both sides, Congress had quote "placed its thumb on the scales" for endangered species such as the right whales, and noted that the species may not survive many more losses.

And on Wednesday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration said lobstermen must remove gear that depends on suspended rope lines from the area, and may not reset it until the seasonal restrictions lift at the end of January.

Lobstermen are feeling whiplashed by it all.

"We're late into the fall, we're coming up on winter, the weather has changed in the last week. (For) them to be able to get their traps out of that if they are forced to do it in a short period of time it's going to put people in danger,” said James Wotton, a Friendship lobsterman and chairman of Lobster Zone Council D, which covers an area of the Midcoast where he says at least 15 boats fish the disputed area. NOAA said it expects that the offshore lobstermen should be able to comply safely within two weeks, and that NOAA and the Coast Guard share enforcement duties.

Wotton said there's more at stake, though.

"It's absolutely going to affect their revenue,” he said. “They're going to have to take time that they would have been focused on catching lobsters into moving gear to places where there's probably less lobsters and definitely more competition. It's going to affect all of us, and that's got the ripple effect.”

Meanwhile, federal regulators are considering a new way to account for whale deaths that are not directly observed, a methodology that could accelerate the timetable for reducing the risk of entanglement to near zero - hastening more closures or trap limits.

Conservationists are supporting the inclusion of the so-called "cryptic mortalities" in the total count of human-caused deaths of adult whales each year. Industry defenders are opposing it. A decision on the issue could come next month. For...

And the Maine Lobstermen's Association says it is trying to raise $10 million dollars for the costs of defending against elements of the federal risk-reduction plan it believes are not backed by the best available science - and against potential action by conservationists or the feds that conceivably could result in a total shutdown of the lobster fishery.

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.