My heart hurts every time the news shows another North Atlantic right whale lying dead on the beach. Not only for these endangered majestic creatures, but for our society, that we have driven this whale right to the edge of extinction. Unless there is swift action this spring from the federal government to protect the right whale, it is likely this species will not be with us for much longer.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in just the past four years 49 whales have died, or are so seriously injured it is assumed they will die soon, meaning there are now fewer than 360 remaining North Atlantic right whales. Sadly, the number of whale deaths continues to grow and in just the past two months we witnessed a whale strangled by fishing gear die on Myrtle Beach, S.C., and a calf struck by a boat propeller gasp its last breaths in St. Augustine.
Right whale mothers birth their calves each year in the warm coastal waters of Florida and Georgia before they swim to feeding grounds in Atlantic coastal waters off northern New England and Canadian shores. This year 17 calves were born, which is good news, but it is their long journey north that puts them at great risk.
You see, their journey is treacherous because right whales are not dying of natural causes – they are struck by ships or entangled in the heavy commercial fishing lines that connect lobster and crab traps on the seafloor to buoys at the water’s surface. Once entangled, whales may drown or drag and swim with attached gear for long distances, ultimately resulting in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injuries that lead to reduced reproductive success and long, painful deaths.
What is the solution? Well, the U.S. federal government is required to protect these animals in our coastal waters, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. To that end, NOAA has proposed new rules for the U.S. American lobster and Jonah crab fishery, off the coast of New England. This fishery poses one of the greatest threats to the survival of the right whales in U.S. waters.
The comment period for these new rules ended in March with nearly 250,000 comments submitted and tens of thousands of those coming from Florida. The vast majority feel that the proposed rules do not go far enough and must be reworked and strengthened to save right whales from extinction. That’s because the proposal uses outdated data to calculate risk reduction to whales, it proposes fishing technology which has not been proven to help, and it does not go far enough in its recommendation for targeted closures.
There are solutions to make sure we save the right whale from extinction while minimally impacting the lucrative lobster fishing industry. That includes implementation of proven “ropeless” technology to reduce the number of vertical lines between lobster traps and the surface. There also need to be fishing closures for certain areas south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where right whales have been seen almost every month of the year for the last several years. NOAA should strengthen the proposal by making these two strategies central to the rule.
In the meantime, because any new measures could take one to two years to implement, and the right whale cannot sustain more deaths while we wait for stronger rules to be developed, NOAA should use its emergency authority to put vertical buoy line closures in place in areas where large numbers of right whales and harmful fishing gear co-exist in Southern New England and offshore in the Gulf of Maine.
The North Atlantic right whale is critically endangered and dangerously close to the tipping point for extinction, but their population can rebound if we lower human-caused deaths. Unless we act now, it would mark the first human-caused extinction of a large whale. This would be tragic for right whales and detrimental to the ocean ecosystem, to the lobster and crab fisheries, and to people who care about the health of our oceans and marine wildlife.
Candis Whitney owned and operated a 114-slip marina in Northeast Florida for 32 years. Currently, she serves as an organizer for the Amelia Island Conservation Network, the Right Whale Festival and on the Board of Wild Amelia.