Federal Judge Restores Ban on Fishing Net That Entangles Whale Species

North American right whales. (Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Environmentalists hoping to save the North Atlantic right whale won a federal injunction Monday banning walls of fishing net that entangle the species that has been on the brink of extinction since the 1970s. 

Only 400 North Atlantic right whales – and 100 breeding females of the species – remain on the planet today.

The decision by U.S. District Judge James Boasberg speared changes made by the National Marine Fisheries Service earlier this year to rules governing New England’s fisheries. 

Boasberg ruled the government’s decision in April to allow gillnet fishing gear in two of the whale’s feeding grounds violated the Endangered Species Act, and he restored a ban on the apparatus. 

“Between the hardship to the North Atlantic right whale of its fast approaching extinction and the hardship to NMFS of completing its legislatively mandated consultation to ensure that Congress’s priorities as to endangered species are carried out, there can be no confusion,” Boasberg wrote in his ruling in favor of the Conservation Law Foundation. 

The whale, which grows to be as long as 52 feet and weighs as much as 70 tons, has been listed under the Endangered Species Act since the law’s passage in 1973 — a longstanding protection Boasberg made note of in his 36-page opinion.  

Today, deaths are outpacing births in the narrow population. Since 2017, researchers have observed during three calving seasons the birth of only 12 North Atlantic right whales.

NMFS fisheries teams did not consult the agency’s protected resources experts before issuing the gear rule change.  

Boasberg found the nonprofit law foundation’s position “unequivocally supported” by the Endangered Species Act and wrote the agency’s “duty was clear, and the Court cannot excuse this breach.”

The judge agreed with research presented by the nonprofit that every mortality carries a significant impact in the ongoing fight to avoid extinction.

Boasberg also recognized the energy required for whales who escape the nets to recover from the fishing-gear drag. 

The fisheries service did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday, but the agency website lists the gillnet gear Boasberg banned Monday as one of the greatest threats to the critically endangered species. 

“Entanglement can prevent proper feeding, constrict growth, or cause infection after many months,” the agency’s website states. “Marine mammals entangled in set gillnets can drown while those entangled in drift gillnets can drag gear for miles as they migrate and forage, leading to extreme fatigue.”

The agency argued in court, however, that opening up two areas off the coast of New England to gillnet fishing does not pose a greater threat than other methods and that closing off the area to fisheries setting up the gear is not as effective as other methods of whale protection. 

Boasberg called the arguments fundamentally problematic.

“The question is not whether there are more harmful actions the agency could take or more effective ways of protecting the whales than keeping the two areas closed. It matters only that gillnet fishing seriously harms the whales and that opening these areas to gillnet fishing would cause such injury,” the judge wrote. 

On its website, the fisheries service lists four additional whale species – including humpback whales – as well as four dolphin species and sea lions as species most commonly caught in gillnets.

The Conservation Law Foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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