Judge Rules that Federal Fishery Managers Violated the Endangered Species Act

Did not consider risks to right whales when authorizing lobster fishery

right whale aerial shot

Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries Science Center

April 9, 2020 (BOSTON, MA) –A federal judge ruled today that the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) violated the Endangered Species Act when it authorized the American lobster fishery without appropriately analyzing its impact on right whales.

“This decision confirms that even the federal government is not above the law,” said Erica Fuller, CLF Senior Attorney. “We must do whatever it takes to ensure right whales are here for future generations, and that starts with obeying the Endangered Species Act. The ruling provides an incentive for fishermen and scientists to forge a new path that protects right whales while also sustaining the lobster industry.”

In his decision, Judge Boasberg wrote that the fishery service’s failure to include an incidental take statement after finding that the fishery had the potential to harm right whales at three times sustainable levels was “about as straightforward a violation of the ESA as they come.”

There are barely 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining, and at least 30 whales have died since the summer of 2017.

The lawsuit centered on the National Marine Fishery Service’s responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. The federal agency is also responsible for authorizing the lobster fishery, whose thick vertical fishing lines entangle and harm right whales. CLF and the other plaintiffs in this case – the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Humane Society of the United States – argued that the agency unlawfully allowed the fishery to operate despite the threat their lines pose to right whales along the East Coast.

This is one of two lawsuits CLF filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2018 to force federal regulators to comply with their legal responsibility to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Last year, Judge Boasberg ruled that opening waters south of Nantucket to gillnet fishing was illegal in the absence of appropriate analysis.

CLF experts are available for further comment.