Federal Court of Appeals rules in favor of Maine lobstermen in Right Whale case

Maine Lobster Association releases statement
Fri, 06/16/2023 - 5:30pm

    The Maine Lobstermen’s Association issued a statement June 16 on a ruling in its favor by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on its appeal of a lower court ruling in Maine Lobstermen's Association v. National Marine Fisheries Service. 

    In September 2021, MLA filed a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s 10-year whale protection plan.

    MLA had argued that the “National Marine Fisheries Service has overestimated the lobster industry’s risk to right whales by cherry-picking the science and using unsupported assumptions and “worst-case scenarios” to justify its mandate for Maine's lobster fishery to reduce its already minimal risk to right whales by 98 percent.

    MLA claimed that NMFS also failed to follow mandatory legal requirements to assess the economic and social costs of their actions, according to the statement.

    On September 8, 2022, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled against MLA in an opinion that deferred to the National Marine Fisheries Service: “on all counts without disputing the validity of MLA’s concerns. As a result, NMFS was fast-tracking the 10-year whale plan to require Maine’s lobster industry to implement an unachievable 90-percent “risk reduction” as quickly as possible or the federal lobster fishery could be shutdown.”

    In October 2022, the MLA announced it had retained former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement and filed for expedited consideration of its appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. 

    In its June 16 ruling, the Court wrote: “In this case, we decide whether, in a biological opinion, the Service must, or even may, when faced with uncertainty, give the ‘benefit of the doubt’ to an endangered species by relying upon worst-case scenarios or pessimistic assumptions. We hold it may not. The ESA and the implementing regulations call for an empirical judgment about what is “likely.” The Service’s role as an expert is undermined, not furthered, when it distorts that scientific judgment by indulging in worst-case scenarios and pessimistic assumptions to benefit a favored side.”

    On hearing the decision, Patrice McCarron, MLA policy director, said, “When the Maine Lobstermen’s Association made the decision to sue the federal government, we knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we refused to go down without a fight. Today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals is an overwhelming victory for lobstering families and the communities that rely on this industry, and it reaffirms what the MLA has been saying all along – the federal government does not have a blank check to use “worst case scenarios” and disregard actual data in its regulation of the Maine lobster fishery.

    "MLA is grateful for the panel’s thorough and unanimous opinion that exposes the flaws in the biological opinion that lobstermen have been emphasizing from the beginning – flaws that threatened to sink our entire fishery and devastate our livelihoods and our communities.

    “While today’s decision is great news, our work will continue. We all agree with the need to ensure a safe environment in which the endangered right whale can recover, and MLA is hopeful that this decision will force the National Marine Fisheries Service to go back to the drawing board to develop a plan that uses best available science and accurate data and, importantly, that will protect whales without eliminating the lobster fishery,” McCarron said.