In this photo provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing rope is sighted on Dec. 2, 2021, with a newborn calf in waters near Cumberland Island, Ga. The federal government released data on Tuesday, June 28, 2022, that said entanglements of whales in fishing gear declined in 2020, but the entanglements remained a dangerous threat to endangered species such as the North Atlantic right whale. Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources / NOAA Permit via AP

A federal judge ruled Friday that federal fisheries regulators are violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to adequately protect North Atlantic right whales from potentially deadly entanglements in fishing gear, including the rope used by Maine’s lobster fleet.

In his 43-page decision, Judge James Boasberg of the District of Columbia quickly sets the stakes for the roughly 350 whales left on the planet.

“For centuries, these whales were imperiled by excessive hunting,” he wrote. “But today the greatest human-caused threat comes from entanglement in fishing gear.”

Boasberg goes on to find that officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the ESA with their recent finding that Atlantic crab and lobster fisheries will not jeopardize the existence of the whale, despite the agency’s acknowledged expectation of continued harm.

The agency projected at least three whale deaths a year, even under the latest and controversial set of lobstering rules that aim to reduce the risk of entanglements. That’s three times the mortality rate scientists say the species can handle without risking extinction.

Erica Fuller is an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit in the case against the government and the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. She said the ruling will likely shorten the government’s 10-year timeframe for reducing risk even further.

But she notes that Boasberg is asking the parties to propose remedies, rather than imposing new fishing restrictions himself.

“It looks like to me like he is definitely weighing both the odds for the existence of the species and would like to see the fishery continuing,” Fuller said.

State officials and advocates for the lobster industry had no immediate comment, saying they needed time to study the ruling.

“I am deeply troubled by the Court’s decision and remain committed to supporting the hard working men and woman of Maine’s lobster industry as this legal battle continues,” DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher said. “Our attorneys are reviewing the decision so we can better understand the legal ramifications as we consider any and all options we that we might have.”

This story appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.