Lobstermen and the state of Maine are challenging a judge’s decision to restrict fishing that threatens severely threatened whale species.

North Atlantic right whales were once the preferred target for commercial whaling. They swim slowly and at the surface, close to the coast, and they don’t sink when killed, all making them easy targets. Today, they’re one of the most endangered surviving species of whale, with fewer than 375 individuals remaining. They feed in the Labrador Sea near the North Pole, and calve off Georgia and Florida. The migration route between the two sites, where they take their young calves, is especially vulnerable.

Between 2017 and 2019, 17 deaths were recorded, which was considered an Unusual Mortality Event in such a small population. 8 of those were due to entanglement with fishing gear, with 8 more identified as severely injured by the same causes.

In response, new laws are being passed to protect the fragile population. These laws mostly consist of restrictions on lobster fishing. Restrictions like where they can fish, how much equipment they can put out, and of what sort.

According to lobstermen, the new rules make lobster fishing untenable, destroying an industry that is the heritage of the state of Maine. They call them punitive to the fishing industry.

Earlier this month, a federal judge denied a request to stop the new laws from being put in place. Now, Maine Gov. Janet Mills and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association are appealing that decision.

According to the fishing group, it is “escalating its fight to save Maine’s lobstering heritage from a plan that the agency itself admits is not needed for the species to survive,” said Patrice McCarron, executive director of the lobstermen’s association.

According to environmentalists, the protections are crucial.

“Scientific research shows that overlap between fixed fishing gear and right whale habitat results in entanglement risk,” said Brenna Sowder, an outreach volunteer for the Maine Coalition for North Atlantic Right Whales.

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