By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
With fewer than 360 North Atlantic right whales surviving on earth today, the clock is ticking for these marine mammals. Today, the Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society Legislative Fund, along with our coalition partners, asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to take urgent steps to protect these vulnerable animals from one of the leading causes driving them toward extinction—entanglement in commercial fishing gear.
The HSUS and our coalition partners submitted a formal petition today to the NMFS, the federal agency responsible for protecting our nation’s marine resources, requesting such action, and the HSLF joined a letter supporting the petition.
The HSUS and our coalition partners won a lawsuit in April this year against the National Marine Fisheries Service for its failure to protect right whales from entanglements in the “trap/pot” gear used by American lobster fisheries. The gear includes heavy ropes that drop down from buoys on the surface of the ocean and become wrapped around the whales, sometimes killing them. Even when the entanglement is not fatal, the heavy wraps of line can interfere with the animals’ ability to reproduce, eat or rise to the surface to breathe.
Scientists have determined that more than 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lifetime, and 60 percent have been entangled multiple times. In August, a federal judge gave the agency until May 31 of next year to put in place new regulations to protect right whales from such gear.
While that is great news, the situation for right whales is getting more dire by the day and we cannot afford to do nothing until those regulations are in place.
The petition filed today requests that the NMFS use its emergency authority under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to expand existing closures of commercial fishing gear, and to close a specific area south of Nantucket where right whales are known to congregate in large numbers. These new and expanded closures would still allow for the use of safer alternatives (known as “on-demand,” “buoyless,” “ropeless,” or “pop-up” gear) that do not present the high risk of fatal entanglements caused by vertical lines.
The measures we are requesting would be temporary, but they have the potential to make a significant and longer-term impact for the safety and survival of right whales during the time the NMFS develops permanent regulations.
Earlier this year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared North Atlantic right whales are “critically endangered”—meaning they are on the brink of disappearing from earth altogether. At the time of that designation, around 400 right whales remained, but new scientific information shows that the population is actually lower—fewer than 360 individuals—with only about 70 breeding females left. This is a shocking decline since 2010, and the NMFS believes that at least 45 right whales have died just since 2017.
The HSUS and the HSLF have been pushing to protect right whales on many fronts. We recently signed on to a legal petition urging the NMFS to put in place new regulations to protect right whales from being hit by ships and other large vessels—the second leading cause of right whale deaths behind fishing gear entanglements. And we continue to press for the passage of the SAVE Right Whales Act (S. 2453/H.R. 1568), introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., retired Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga, and Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. and John Rutherford, R-Fla. The bill authorizes $5 million per year for research on North Atlantic right whale conservation over the next 10 years.
We also continue to work closely with appropriators to ensure additional funding goes to right whale conservation.
The fate of the North Atlantic right whales is at a critical crossroads, but it is within the power of our government to take steps to turn the tide for these mammals. We need the NMFS to do its job and take the urgent steps described in our petition to ensure that not one more right whale dies from a completely preventable hazard. Otherwise, it won’t be long before these magnificent mammals plunge past the point of no return.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.