Oceana Wins First Step in USMCA Submission to Investigate U.S. Failure to Protect Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales
First-Ever Complaint Against the United States Under the USMCA Moves Forward
Press Release Date: June 13, 2022
Today, the Secretariat for the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), part of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), agreed to move forward with the first step in a two-step process to investigate the United States’ failure to uphold its environmental laws to protect North Atlantic right whales from deadly vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements. This decision was in response to Oceana’s filing the first-ever Submission on Enforcement Matters against the U.S. government under the USMCA. Oceana says the government has violated the USMCA by failing to enforce environmental laws to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, of which only around 330 remain.
“We applaud the CEC Secretariat for taking the first step in the USMCA process to hold the United States accountable to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales,” said Whitney Webber, campaign director at Oceana. “It’s clear that the U.S. government is failing to uphold its own environmental laws to protect North Atlantic right whales from its top threats, and Oceana will continue to use all available tools to force action. There’s no time to waste; now that we have passed this first step, we encourage the CEC Council Members to vote yes to start the investigation at their July meeting to help save North Atlantic right whales from extinction — before it’s too late for these majestic whales.”
Under the USMCA, public stakeholders can hold any of the three countries accountable for not effectively enforcing their environmental laws, such as the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Environmental Policy Act. According to Oceana’s Submission on Enforcement Matters, the federal government is not fully complying with, implementing, or enforcing numerous environmental laws to protect North Atlantic right whales from their primary threats of deadly fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes. The offending agencies and offices named in the letter include the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement, NOAA Office of General Counsel, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
Following the Secretariat’s decision, the second step is a vote by CEC Council Members — the environment ministers for each country — to pursue the formal investigation. If approved, the investigation can take up to six months to complete. If successful, Oceana’s action would shine a light on the federal government’s need to improve its management of threats to North Atlantic right whales and its failures to comply with its own environmental laws and the provisions of the USMCA. Should these failures be successfully challenged by Canada or Mexico, the United States could face trade restrictions.
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 the other 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.