By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
Right whales are critically endangered, with no more than 400 individuals surviving along the U.S. and Canadian coast. But we have an opportunity right now to help save this species. The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering a rule that would reduce one of the greatest threats to the survival of right whales, and it is critical that you weigh in.
Less than half of the world’s remaining North Atlantic right whales are female and, since 2017, only 12 calves have been born. In those same years 28 right whales were found dead either from being hit by large ships or becoming fatally entangled in commercial fishing gear used in lobster and crab fishing. The species is declining. Unless we act fast, right whales could face extinction, but not before they have endured terrible suffering.
Imagine a heavy rope tied tightly around your leg that you have to drag everywhere you go. The rope slowly cuts into your flesh, affecting your ability to walk, eat or sleep and threatening death from infection or starvation over a period of weeks or months. This is what right whales face when they become entangled in fishing gear. The proposed rule would restrict where and how often fishermen can set their gear, potentially sparing suffering – and the lives – of many whales.
In 2018, the Humane Society of the United States, along with partner organizations, filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service. We did so as it became clear that the U.S. government was not acting to impose restrictions on fisheries to reduce the increasing numbers of entanglement-related deaths in the United States. In 2012, in the wake of several fatal collisions with ships near the busiest port areas along the eastern seaboard, our coalition successfully petitioned the U.S. government to designate areas where ships are required to reduce speeds when and where right whales are expected to be present. In 2016, the NMFS dramatically expanded the boundaries of coastal habitats designated as “critical habitat” after we petitioned for—and sued to get—this additional protection.
The HSUS and Humane Society International have also pressed the Canadian government to take action to reduce right whale deaths in its waters. As a result, this year Canada restricted more fisheries and designated specific shipping areas with a seasonal slow speed requirement.
In Congress, the HSUS and Humane Society Legislative Fund are supporting passage of the SAVE Right Whales Act, H.R. 1568, introduced by Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and John Rutherford, R-Fla. The act would authorize $5 million per year for research on North Atlantic right whale conservation over the next 10 years. The House of Representatives included additional funding for right whale conservation in its Fiscal Year 2020 appropriations bill (H.R. 3055) and we are urging the Senate to do so as well.
We also hope that the NMFS will go further in its proposed rule by creating seasonal closures to risk-prone fishing gear in key areas of the Northeast during the time when right whales are feeding in the area. This would include additional funding for research into fishing gear that does not pose a risk of deadly entanglement; the mandatory use of marked fishing lines in lobster and crab fisheries to identify and implement targeted risk reduction measures; and increased enforcement to ensure that fisheries comply with federal mandates.
Right whales have suffered terribly for many decades, and they are perhaps the world’s most endangered large whale species. Whalers named them right whales because they are slow-moving and live close to the coast, making them the “right” whale to kill. Their rapidly-declining numbers led to these whales gaining international protection in the 1930s, after which their numbers increased slowly, but they are declining once again as human activities threaten their survival.
You can help to ensure that our government acts to protect these creatures before it is too late. The NMFS recently held public hearings and has promised a court that it will propose new restrictions by early next year. Please let the agency know you support these and additional protections. The time to help right whales is right now.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.