Two years ago, only 366 North Atlantic right whales were left on Earth. Since then, at least another 15 of these magnificent creatures have been killed or seriously injured by human activity. And just in the past month, two devastating new entanglements of young whales in fishing gear were discovered in New England. The 4-year-old is so seriously injured that his very survival is unlikely (if he is not already dead), and the 11-year-old has line embedded in his head and upper jaw, in addition to dragging line from south of Nantucket to the continental shelf and now up to Gloucester, Massachusetts. These entanglements essentially starve the whales to death, make them so weak that they can no longer swim and riddle them with infection so that their deaths are slow and painful.

Unless we do more to protect them, this species will be extinct in our lifetimes.

North Atlantic right whales have roamed the coastal waters of New England for centuries, and their history is intertwined with our own. They surfaced next to the Mayflower as it anchored in Provincetown Harbor 400 years ago. Rich in blubber and baleen, they were our source of light and provided the material to produce buggy whips and corsets until we hunted them to near extinction. Right whales continue to be part of a healthy marine ecosystem that benefits us to this day.

Protected from hunting since 1935, right whales have never really recovered and are now an unfortunate victim of our own success. Fishing lines are more plentiful and stronger, creating a labyrinth of entanglement risk. Motorized vessels move goods and people quickly and efficiently, leaving right whales no time to escape the hull or rotating propeller of a passing ship. The emissions from our ships, our cars and our economic progress have warmed their waters and moved their prey into areas where whales are at increasing risk of entanglements and vessel strikes.

Right whale populations were on the rise two decades ago, but their numbers have dwindled each year since then as the federal agency charged with their protection has balked in the face of economic and political pressure. This inaction violates the Endangered Species Act and cannot stand.

As a result of a lawsuit filed by groups including the Conservation Law Foundation, the National Marine Fisheries Service has until May 31, 2021, to come up with new protections that will protect right whales from entanglement. With its partners, the Conservation Law Foundation also petitioned the NMFS to reduce the speeds of vessels in emerging right whale habitats and feeding grounds. The science is clear – fewer lines in the water reduce the risk of entanglement and speed limits in areas where whales are known to be feeding or calving reduces the risk of a collision.

Yet nothing has changed on the water. There is no reason to believe the agency with the power and the responsibility to recover this species, but that has failed to do so by its own admission, is going to take action in time to prevent extinction.

It’s time for difficult choices and it’s time for the NMFS to do its job. Until new, long-term protections are in place, federal fishery managers must take emergency action that (1) prohibits fishing with vertical lines in those areas of highest risk to right whales (but legally allows fishing without vertical lines); and (2) requires mandatory speed restrictions everywhere that right whales are known or expected to be present.

The public should demand that the NMFS identify gear and causes of death in a timely manner, that it fully fund disentanglement and necropsy teams, and that it immediately coordinate with Canada to come up with a gear-marking scheme that would stop this endless “whodunit” bickering that allows culpable fisheries to avoid management.

President Theodore Roosevelt expressed the notion that nothing in the world worth having comes easily. We understand that these changes are not easy, but they are doable, necessary and legally mandated. Let’s respect the law that helps us do the right thing for the right whale. Extinction is forever. NMFS must do its job before it’s too late.


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