SCOTUS rejects lobstermen’s bid to lift restrictions sought by conservationists

Without comment or explanation, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer on Friday denied a request from the Maine Lobstering Union to eliminate restrictions on its operation purportedly designed to protect North Atlantic right whales, a decision that leaves its members’ livelihoods in limbo.

According to the Portland Press Herald, Breyer’s order comes on the heels of an emergency application to the high court, filed on Nov. 24, which asked the justices to vacate a ruling handed down in a lower court which closed an approximately 950-square-mile portion of the Gulf of Maine for an economically significant period of time.

Those restrictions – which involve the area’s closure through this coming January as well as for the months of October through January going forward indefinitely – were reinstated by a federal appeals court after having been previously stayed by a district court judge in Bangor, Maine, as Boston NPR affiliate WBUR reported at the time.

Specifically, the federal government had imposed a periodic limitation on the use of “trap-rope” in the defined area, something that would, in practice, prohibit at least 60 or more lobstermens’ boats from seeking their catches in those waters during the applicable spans.

While the Maine Lobstering Union sought and received the aforementioned stay, earlier this month, the appeals court in Boston overruled that decision by declaring that Congress had “placed its thumb on the scales” for endangered species like the right whales in question, and therefore, the limitations would stand.

At the time the lobstermen’s petition with the high court was filed, union member Virginia Olsen declared that, regardless of the decision, her group would not abandon the fight to preserve jobs in that realm and to safeguard the needs of the families and communities they sustain.

A statement issued by Olsen last month asserted, “Generations of Mainers have taken pride in sustainably cultivating the world’s best lobster while simultaneously protecting the right whales,” adding, “The decision to close Maine’s waters to this time-honored industry is unfortunately based on misguided and incomplete science,” as the Press Herald noted.

The outlet added that because union representatives had not yet consulted with their legal counsel regarding possible next steps in the wake of Breyer’s order, the group would not be issuing immediate comment, but Kristen Monsell of the Center for Biological Diversity lauded the outcome, saying it “was right to reject this unfounded attempt to halt reasonable efforts to protect one of the planet’s most endangered animals.”

Though environmentalists seem to have won the day in terms of tying the hands of lobstermen hoping to continue making a living in the same manner they have for decades, time will tell whether the seafaring workers will identify alternative avenues for legal recourse that will help their industry endure.