Lobster boats fill a cove in Stonington as the sun starts to set on Sept. 15, 2022. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

The timeline for how fast federal fishery regulators should come up with new rules to protect the endangered right whale is the latest dispute in years of courtroom battles that could decide the future of Maine’s lobster fleet.

Both the conservation groups that sued the federal government for not safeguarding the whales and the federal agency that oversees the fishing industry recently proposed their visions for the pace of rulemaking.

Predictably, the timelines are vastly different.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the government agency that has been sued for not properly protecting whales, asked the court on Sept. 19 if it could have until December 2024 to come up with new regulations to bring them in line with the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection acts.

Addressing the deficiencies will require a scientific analysis, public engagement and major advances in fishing technology, wrote Todd Kim, a U.S. assistant attorney general.

That 26-month timeline is “eminently reasonable” and necessary to develop and implement solid rules to protect right whales, argued Kim.

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The Conservation Law Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, all environmental groups that have been waging legal battles over the whales since 2018, however want things to change at a much more rapid clip.

In August, the groups asked the court to demand the fisheries service to come up with a new final rule within six months.

New regulations to protect whales are required because a judge in July found that the fisheries service’s plan for the lobster fishery didn’t do enough to cut down the risk to the species, which stands perilously close to extinction. Scientists say that one of the biggest threats to right whales are entanglements in lobstermen’s fishing lines that run from buoys on the surface to lobster traps on the ocean bottom.

Maine lobstermen dispute that.

The lobstermen, who say they never see whales where they fish, feel their industry is being unfairly punished. They believe the true culprit is ship strikes and entanglements in other places.

The timeline question comes after a judge earlier this month rejected the Maine Lobstermen’s Association claim that the plan to protect whales was not based on the best available science in a separate lawsuit. The association is appealing that decision, but the main legal case is now moving forward.

For some, the urgency to change the fishery has heightened as Snow Cone, a right whale that was seen dragging rope in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July, was spotted in rough shape south of Nantucket last week. The New England Aquarium said the whale was tangled up in another set of ropes and its death is all but certain.

“More than 86 percent of right whales have experienced at least one and some individuals as many as eight entanglements, and the severity of these events has increased over time,” said Heather Pettis, a research scientist at the aquarium. “The survival of this species demands that swift and broad actions be taken to prevent these events throughout their range.”

Exactly how the fisheries service would ramp up protections for whales has not yet been decided, though it will likely entail cutting the amount of traps and fishing lines, closing portions of fishing ground and moving towards new fishing gear.

A pair of example proposals used to demonstrate the magnitude of change the fisheries is facing have come out though and show the fishery’s future could be drastically different.

To meet a requirement to cut down the risk to whales by 90 percent, one of the examples was shutting down the entire federal fishery, while also implementing new measures in the state fishery. Another had rotating seasonal closures in different fishing areas throughout Maine, plus subtracting half of the fishing lines in the water.

A scoping session to take public input on how the federal government should protect the whales is scheduled Tuesday. The conservation groups are expected to weigh in on the National Marine Fisheries Service’s timeline next month.