Federal court rules that regulators haven't done enough to protect right whales

Jul. 8—A federal court Friday ruled that federal regulators violated both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act with new regulations that failed to adequately reduce the lobster fishery's threat to the North Atlantic right whale.

The ruling is the culmination of more than four years of litigation, and it represents a huge win for environmental groups fighting to protect the critically endangered whale.

Environmental groups celebrated the "huge victory" Friday.

Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for biological diversity, said the Biden administration needs to work harder to help the industry prevent what she said are "agonizing," deadly entanglements.

"Lobster gear is a deadly threat to right whales, and the courts are telling the federal government to quit stalling and start taking real action," she said.

Friday's ruling was the "course correction" the agency needed to put the whales and the fishery on a path toward sustainability and co-existence, said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife.

"The court's decision recognizes what NOAA Fisheries has ignored for decades — that Congress clearly intended to protect right whales from the lobster gear entanglements that are driving the species toward extinction just as surely as whaling nearly did," she said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservation Law Foundation and Defenders of Wildlife sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in early 2018 for failing to prevent whales from getting tangled and killed in lobster gear.

In April 2020 the groups won a ruling that NOAA Fisheries' prior biological opinion on the lobster fishery violated the Endangered Species Act.

The biological opinion assesses whether federal action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat. Per a court order, the agency had until May 31, 2021, to finalize a new biological opinion.

The Fisheries Service released a new biological opinion and new regulations in 2021, but the groups amended their lawsuit to add claims alleging that the agency's new rule violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act by failing to reduce the risk that right whales will die in lobster lines to the low levels required by the statute within six months of implementation, environmental groups said in a news release Friday.

This story will be updated.