Paul Clement, who served as U.S. solicitor general from 2004 to 2008, will represent Maine lobstermen.
In this March 28, 2018, file photo, North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Credit: Michael Dwyer / AP

Maine lobster fishermen have hired a former high-ranking U.S. Department of Justice official to represent them in their case against new laws intended to protect whales.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association is appealing its case against the new rules to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The group said Tuesday it has hired Paul Clement, who served as U.S. solicitor general from 2004 to 2008, to represent it in the case.

The solicitor general supervises all Supreme Court litigation for the U.S., and Clement has argued dozens of cases in front of the high court. That’s where the lobstermen’s case could ultimately be headed, he said Tuesday.

The new fishing restrictions have pushed the industry to the brink of collapse, Clement said.

“You have administrative overreach. The implications are easy to understand,” he said. “It directly threatens really one of the most iconic American industries. Everyone who has ever enjoyed a lobster can appreciate this.”

The lobster fishermen sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, and in September a judge denied their request to stop the regulators from placing the new restrictions on fishing. The restrictions are designed to protect the North Atlantic right whale, which numbers less than 340 and is vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear.

The fisheries service has declined to comment on the lawsuit. The Maine Lobstermen’s Association also filed court papers on Tuesday asking for its appeal to be expedited because of the jeopardy posed to the fishery by the new restrictions on where and how they can fish.

Environmental groups have long pushed for stronger protections for the right whales, which were devastated generations ago during the commercial whaling era. The groups have made their own case in court that the federal government should be doing more to protect the whales.

The American lobster fishery is based mostly in Maine, though lobsters also come to the docks elsewhere in New England and in New York and New Jersey. U.S. lobsters were worth a record figure of more than $900 million at the docks last year.

Story by Patrick Whittle.