Today, the National Marine Fisheries Service released a long-awaited final rule that is intended to reduce the risk of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales becoming entangled in fishing gear used in the U.S. lobster and crab fisheries. Unfortunately, Oceana says the rule does not go far enough. The rule, which has been in development since 2017, includes increasing the number of traps per buoy, requiring weak rope, and prohibiting some entangling gears in certain areas during certain seasons, among other things. The new rule relies on “weak rope,” where entanglements will continue but may allow adult whales to break free. The rule will also not effectively move fishing away from areas where North Atlantic right whales are expected or seen.
Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber released the following statement in response to the final rule:
“After four years of rulemaking, it’s disheartening that despite the legal obligation to be stewards of North Atlantic right whales and help them recover, the government has once again failed to take aggressive action. North Atlantic right whales are sliding closer toward extinction due to known, human-caused risks, including fishing gear entanglements. In February of this year, an 11-year-old male known as ‘Cottontail’ was found dead off South Carolina after being entangled in fishing gear for months. With only around 360 whales remaining, there is no room for shortsighted solutions. We can recover this species, but it will take meaningful, strong regulations to keep deaths below one per year —the level the National Marine Fisheries Service says is needed to support recovery.
The National Marine Fisheries Service’s overreliance on weak rope, which is designed to break with the strength of an adult whale, is insufficient because it continues to put calves and juveniles directly in harm’s way. Proven management tools that will reduce interactions with the roughly 1 million fishing lines are available, yet the government declined to consider these tools because they were ‘unpopular with stakeholders.’ Oceana and its members are stakeholders in this crisis as well. This disregard for public comment by the Biden administration is disappointing.
Oceana is committed to ensuring North Atlantic right whales have meaningful protection from all threats across their range, from Florida to eastern Canada. As it stands, this rule leaves the whales vulnerable and jeopardizes their future, as well as the future of the U.S. lobster and crab fisheries, which could be shut down if North Atlantic right whales are not protected. There’s no time to waste — the rule must be strengthened immediately with expanded time/area management and effective monitoring if North Atlantic right whales are to survive. The Biden administration is now responsible for the future of North Atlantic right whales in U.S. waters — Oceana urges the administration to not let extinction of this iconic species be its legacy.”
During the rulemaking process, more than 201,000 comments were received in support of stronger protections for the remaining 360 North Atlantic right whales, including over 18,000 comments from Oceana members and supporters from Florida to Maine and across the country.
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, snow crab, and bottom-dwelling fish like halibut, flounder, and cod is one of two leading causes of North Atlantic right whale deaths. Around one quarter of North Atlantic right whales are entangled in fishing gear from the U.S. and Canada 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 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 the other leading cause 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 vessel-related collisions with North Atlantic right whales. At high speeds, 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 binational campaign to save North Atlantic right whales, click here.