PORTLAND, Maine — A federal court is allowing a team of environmental groups to continue with a lawsuit against the U.S. government that seeks to create stronger rules to protect rare whales from collisions with ships.
The environmental groups want to protect North Atlantic right whales, which are vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. The whales numbered only 366 in 2019, and its population fell to 336 in 2020, a group of scientists said last month.
The petitioners want the National Marine Fisheries Service to expand areas and times in which a speed limit rule that protects the whales applies. They’ve also called for the government to make speed rules mandatory and apply them to both small and large vessels.
The administration of President Joe Biden has pushed back against the suit and sought to have it dismissed, but the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied that request Wednesday, court records state. The court ruled the government “cannot avoid its obligation” to consider the request, records state.
The lawsuit is a chance to protect the declining whales and also make waters safer for shippers, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of the North American office of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, one of the petitioning environmental groups.
That’s especially important because right whales have been spotted outside their typical migratory patterns in recent years, and that can take boaters by surprise, Asmutis-Silvia said.
“This isn’t just about protecting right whales, it’s about protecting boaters, too,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “To me, it’s a safety issue for both the vessels and the right whales. They’re not easy to see, and they’re in newer habitats that people aren’t used to seeing them.”
A spokesperson for the fisheries service declined to comment because the lawsuit is still active.
Right whale conservation has been a contentious topic in recent years because of the potential economic impact of protecting the whales on shipping and commercial fishing. The Maine lobster industry is dealing with a suite of new rules to try to save the whales.
However, a Maine lobster fishing union in October won relief in court to try to stop the closure of fishing grounds off the state. A federal judge said the rules had the potential to economically damage the fishing industry without protecting the whales.
The whales were once abundant off New England, but they were decimated during the commercial whaling era. They’ve been protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades.
Patrick Whittle, Associated Press