Biden Administration Declines to Take Action to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales
Inaction leaves mothers and new calves vulnerable to boat collisions
Press Release Date: January 23, 2023
WASHINGTON — On Friday afternoon, the National Marine Fisheries Service notified Oceana that the Biden administration rejected Oceana’s emergency petition calling for increased protections for critically endangered North Atlantic right whale mothers and calves in the U.S. Southeast region.
Oceana’s December 6, 2022, petition demanded that, as the federal agency charged with protecting North Atlantic right whales under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service should use its legal authority to put stronger safeguards in place to reduce the risk of boat strikes to North Atlantic right whales. The Fisheries Service proposed nearly identical protections to those requested by Oceana in 2022 and the White House has published its intent to finalize these changes by June 2023. Oceana’s petition asked that the following protective measures be put in place immediately to protect the mothers and calves during this current calving season:
•Modify Seasonal Speed Zones (“SSZs”) for the Atlantic, Great South Channel, North Carolina, South Carolina, and the Southeast region;
•Implement a mandatory Dynamic Speed Zone (“DSZ”) “framework,” while enhancing and clarifying the DSZ trigger to include the presence of a mother-calf pair, instead of limiting the trigger to “three or more whales in close proximity;” and
•Expand the size and class of boats currently subject to speed restrictions to include most vessels greater than or equal to 35 feet in length
“Instead of doing what is necessary to protect North Atlantic right whales, the National Marine Fisheries Service is turning its back on this critically endangered species,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director for Oceana. “Their refusal to take immediate action continues the agency’s history of delays and leaves new mothers and calves in danger. These whales are particularly vulnerable to boat strikes because they spend their time at the water’s surface. In just the last week, half a dozen right whale sightings have occurred outside of existing protection areas and none of the whales in the southeast region are protected from smaller boats that can and do kill right whales. The government’s own assessment clearly shows that more needs to be done for this species to reduce the risk of whale mortality.”
As of January 20, 2023, 11 North Atlantic right whale mother-calf pairs have been sighted in the U.S. southeast region. The estimate for a relatively productive calving season would be 20 newborns. However, given the estimated rate of human-caused mortality and serious injury, 50 or more calves per year will be needed for many years to stop the decline and allow for recovery.
“We expect our leaders to make hard decisions to fix problems. By rejecting this request to quickly act on its own proposal, the Biden administration is assuming risk for this species. If and when a mother or calf are hit or killed before new regulations take effect, the National Marine Fisheries Service and its leader Assistant Administrator Janet Coit, should be held responsible. North Atlantic right whales cannot wait,” Brogan continued.
Scientists estimate that less than one North Atlantic right whale per year can perish due to human causes in order for the species to have a chance at survival and recovery. Each whale’s death is the result of inadequate government regulations and sets the species’ recovery back more than a year.
North Atlantic right whales were named for being the “right” whale to hunt because they were often found near shore, swim slowly, and tend to float when killed. They were aggressively hunted, and their population dropped from peak estimates of up to 21,000 to perhaps fewer than 100 by the 1920s. After whaling of North Atlantic right whales was banned in 1935, their population increased to as many as 483 individuals in 2010. Unfortunately, that progress has reversed.
Entanglement in fishing gear used to catch lobster, crab, and other species is a leading cause of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Around one-quarter of the population is entangled in fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada each year, and about 85% of whales have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around their mouths, fins, tails, and bodies, which slow them down; make it difficult to swim, reproduce, and feed; and can cause death. The lines cut into the whales’ flesh, leading to life-threatening infections, and are so strong that they have severed fins and tails and cut into bone.
Collisions with vessels is another leading cause of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. They are slow, swimming around 6 miles (or 9.5 kilometers) per hour, usually near the water’s surface. They are also dark in color and lack a dorsal fin, making them very difficult to spot. Studies have found that the speed of a vessel is a major factor in vessel-related collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At high speeds, vessels cannot maneuver to avoid them, and they swim too slowly to be able to move out of the way. This puts them at great risk of being struck, which can cause deadly injuries from blunt-force trauma or cuts from propellers.
To learn more about Oceana’s campaign to save North Atlantic right whales from extinction, please click here.