Mike Johnson mends traps for offshore lobstering on Widgery Wharf in Portland on Tuesday Nov. 16, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Lobster fishermen off the Maine coast must begin to remove gear from a new protected area intended to help whales, the federal government said.

New rules make an approximately 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine essentially off limits to lobster fishing from October to January. A federal appeals court ruled this week that the ban is enforceable, despite legal challenges from the lobster industry.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday that lobster and crab fishermen in the area must now remove their gear and may not set new gear. The agency said it expects the gear to be removed within two weeks.

The removal of the gear in late fall presents a safety concern, said Patrick Keliher, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. He said the federal government and the courts “have an obligation to take fisherman safety into concern when they make these decisions.”

Keliher also said the state will continue to challenge the new fishing rules in court.

The protected area is designed to help save the North Atlantic right whale, which numbers less than 340 and is vulnerable to lethal entanglement in fishing gear.