U.S. District Judge Lance Walker is pictured at a naturalization ceremony in Bangor on March 6, 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A judge on Saturday blocked the seasonal closure of nearly 1,000 square miles of water off the Maine coast to traditional lobstering in a massive victory for the industry over the federal government.

The new rules were set to take effect on Monday as part of a renewed federal effort to protect the endangered right whale. There are less than 400 of the whales left, but the lobstering industry, Maine Gov. Janet Mills, the congressional delegation and Legislature have hammered the rules, noting economic hardship and few recorded cases of whales entangled in gear.

U.S. District Court judge Lance Walker sided with them on Saturday, ruling that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had not proven that “right whales actually congregate in or pass through” the affected area enough to call it a “hotspot” for the species. The delay will be in effect until he makes a ruling on the legal merits of the case.

The rules would close the swath of water roughly 30 miles offshore from near Casco Bay to the west side of Mount Desert Island in part of the peak season between October and January. While NOAA estimated that roughly 60 lobstermen fish in the area, the waters are productive. Ropeless fishing would be allowed, but the technology is new and has not caught on yet.

Walker said “the certain economic harms that would result from allowing this closure to go into effect outweigh the uncertain and unknown benefits of closing some of the richest fishing ground in Maine for three months based on a prediction that it might be a hotspot” for whales.

The lawsuit is one of a few aimed at the proposed federal rules, which were released in late August. Maine is most affected by the closure, since it lands roughly 80 percent of the U.S. lobster catch. This case is led by the Maine Lobstering Union, whose lawyer called the case “a significant step” for the industry.

“We will continue to push for science and data that reflect what is truly happening in our industry,” Alfred Frawley said in a statement.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...