By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
North Atlantic right whales, once decimated by whalers, have continued to face an onslaught of other threats to their survival in recent decades, including entanglement in commercial fishing gear, collision with large ships and climate change. These gentle giants, who swim in the waters off the U.S. and Canadian east coast, are among the most critically endangered large mammals on earth and their numbers continue to drop at an alarming rate. This week, Congress is turning a spotlight on these beleaguered creatures in an attempt to save them from further decline and possible extinction.
Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and John Rutherford, R–Fla., yesterday introduced the Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered North Atlantic (SAVE) Right Whales Act, which authorizes $5 million per year for research on North Atlantic right whale conservation over the next 10 years. In addition, the House Natural Resources subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife will hold a hearing today on threats facing the species and how to address them.
These are promising steps that offer hope of turning the tide for right whales, who need help fast. Fewer than 440 North Atlantic right whales remain on earth, and only 100 are females of reproductive age. In the past five years, as the numbers of the whales have declined, so has their birth rate. In recent years, more right whales have died than have been born. No calves were born during the 2017-18 winter birthing season and so far this birthing season, only seven newborns have been seen — well below the expected number.
Right whales were so named because in the past, they were a favorite target for whalers: they followed the coastline, moved slowly, floated when they were dead, and so were considered the “right” whale to kill. The threats they face today are different, but perhaps even more devastating. Right whales feed in the cool northern waters off New England and Canada in the summer and travel to and from the waters off the coasts of Georgia and Florida to give birth in the winter. Their seasonal migrations take them through some of the most industrialized stretches of ocean in the world, as well as through a number of busy shipping lanes and port entrances. Right whales frequently get entangled in heavy fishing lines, such as those used in lobster gear, and often drown immediately. Some break free but stay wrapped in heavy line that cuts into their bodies with each stroke of their powerful tail flukes. Entangled whales can’t feed efficiently, they don’t reproduce, and their body condition declines. In 2017, entanglement in commercial fishing gear and vessel collisions resulted in an unprecedented 17 right whale deaths.
The Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund have worked for many years to raise awareness of the plight of right whales and to do something about it. In 2013, as the result of a legal petition filed by the HSUS, the United States mandated that large ships slow down while passing through key right whale habitats. This resulted in reducing deaths from lethal ship strikes, which until recently was the leading cause of death for the species. We also successfully petitioned to expand their designated critical habitat protections in key feeding areas and in the Southeastern United States where female right whales birth their young. And over the last two decades, we have filed numerous lawsuits against the National Marine Fisheries Service, forcing the agency to improve its management of the species and mitigate threats to the survival of the population. This year, we partnered with other organizations to send a letter asking Congress to appropriate $5 million in Fiscal Year 2020 for research to help their survival.
The HSUS and Humane Society International joined last year with a coalition of wildlife and animal protection groups asking Canada to restrict risk-prone fisheries during months when right whales are in the Gulf of Ste. Lawrence in greatest numbers in order to prevent their fatal entanglement in fishing gear.
Researchers are working with fishermen to develop innovative technologies that can reduce the risk of fatally entangling whales while still maintaining profitable commercial fisheries and jobs in coastal communities; but more work and testing of new technologies are needed. By funding this sort of research, the SAVE Right Whales Act will increase the chances for long-term survival of the species. It will help us better understand where, when and how whales use habitats, particularly in coastal areas that may be challenged by additional human activities.
We applaud members of Congress for drawing attention to these imperiled animals through the hearing this week, and for promoting needed funding for recovery efforts that would be authorized by this bill. Right whales are running out of time. Please call your legislators and urge them to support this important bill and efforts to save a magnificent species from slipping further toward extinction. And let’s redouble our other efforts to make the world truly safe for whales – all of them.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.