In response to a 2018 lawsuit brought by the Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Conservation Law Foundation, and the Center for Biological Diversity, a federal judge has ruled that the U.S. government must take action to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from the American lobster fishery by May 2021. The decision also ordered an analysis of the lobster fishery but failed to prohibit lobster fishing in an area south of Nantucket, Mass., when North Atlantic right whales are present, which the groups had requested.
Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber released the following statement in response to the new ruling:
“We commend Judge James Boasberg’s decision and are hopeful that NOAA Fisheries will respond quickly and aggressively to alleviate the continued threat of vertical fishing lines to endangered North Atlantic right whales. These whales cannot wait any longer for the government to do its job, a job it has had ample time to do, and thankfully the law is on the right whale’s side. While we are disappointed that immediate, on-the-water protections were not required, this ruling is a step in the right direction to make the ocean safer for North Atlantic right whales and provide a clear and concrete path for establishing permanent protections for this important species.
We know that entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with vessels are the two leading causes of death for North Atlantic right whales. Yet our government has turned a blind eye as these whales continue to die. The status quo must change if North Atlantic right whales are to survive. We need to find a way to reduce the number of vertical fishing lines in the water and we must require that vessels slow down to protect right whales. If not, we may become the first generation in centuries to allow a large whale species to go extinct in the Atlantic Ocean.”
Yesterday’s decision follows an announcement earlier this month that the Marine Stewardship Council had suspended its certification of the Maine lobster fishery over concerns about the fishery’s impact on North Atlantic right whales.
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 been reversed.
Entanglement in fishing gear used to catch lobster, snow crab and bottom-dwelling fish like halibut, flounder and cod is one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada entangles an estimated 100 North Atlantic right whales each year, and about 83% of all North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once. Ropes have been seen wrapped around North Atlantic right whales’ mouths, fins, tails and bodies, which slows them down, making it difficult to swim, reproduce and feed, and can kill them. 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 the other leading causes of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. North Atlantic right whales are slow, swimming around 6 miles 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 collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At normal operating speeds, many vessels cannot maneuver to avoid them, and North Atlantic right whales 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.