Oceana Says U.S. Government Violates International Trade Agreement by Failing to Protect Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales
Press Release Date: October 1, 2021
WASHINGTON — Today, Oceana filed the first-ever Submission on Enforcement Matters against the U.S. government under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Oceana says the government has violated the USMCA by failing to enforce its environmental laws to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which only around 360 remain. If these failures and violations continue, the U.S. government will play a large role if North Atlantic right whales go extinct.
Under the USMCA, a person or organization may file a submission with the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) if a USMCA party is not effectively enforcing its environmental laws, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act. According to Oceana, the United States is not effectively implementing numerous environmental laws to protect North Atlantic right whales from their primary threats of deadly fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes, as well as stressors from climate change, ocean noise, and offshore energy development. The offending agencies/offices named in the submission include the National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA Office of Law Enforcement, NOAA Office of General Counsel, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
“It is clear that the U.S. government is failing North Atlantic right whales, and we hope this action will finally get these whales the protections they require,” said Whitney Webber, campaign director at Oceana. “Oceana’s submission not only outlines all the ways that the government has failed to uphold its own environmental laws to protect North Atlantic right whales, but it also requires a government response. Until the U.S. government effectively acts on its legal obligations to protect North Atlantic right whales from top threats and prevent their extinction, Oceana will continue to use all tools available under the law to force action.”
Following the submission, the Secretariat for the CEC will review Oceana’s assertions, and the U.S. government will be required to respond and explain its environmental failures. Ultimately, Oceana’s intent is that the submission process will result in the federal government significantly improving its protections for 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 reversed.
Collisions with vessels are one of two 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 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.
Entanglement in fishing gear used to catch lobster, snow crab and bottom-dwelling fish like halibut, flounder and cod is the other leading cause 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.
To learn more about Oceana’s binational campaign to save North Atlantic right whales, click here.