Sierra on a whale watching boat (Credit: Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society)
One of my favorite work trips every year is to the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The fewer than 500 remaining North Atlantic right whales live almost exclusively in the coastal waters off the Eastern U.S. and Canada, and this annual meeting brings together the scientists, government officials and conservationists working to bring these highly endangered animals back from the brink of extinction. Defenders of Wildlife has long been a forerunner in the fight to address the leading threats to this species.
As I do every year, in November I presented to the Consortium on the efforts of Defenders and our conservation partners to ensure that right whales and the busy waters of the Eastern Seaboard that they call home are protected from increasing industrialization. There’s a lot happening right now on these fronts, so it was great to communicate to the scientists how their research is being used for right whale conservation, and the upcoming opportunities for them — and you — to weigh in on what’s needed to protect right whales.
Some things to watch for:
Speed Limits for Ships
Ship strikes are the leading cause of death for North Atlantic right whales. In 2008, following years of pressure from Defenders and our partners, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) imposed the first-ever speed limits for large ships on the East Coast. These requirements give crew members more time to stop and avoid whales, and for whales to move out of their path. But the speed restrictions we fought so hard for will expire in December, 2013 unless the governments acts to extend them. Defenders and our partners petitioned NMFS in June to do just that, as well as to expand the restrictions to other times and places that right whales need protection. Making sure these rules stay in place and are as effective as possible is vital to right whale survival and recovery.
A right whale and her calf
Fishing Gear Entanglement
NMFS is scheduled to release a proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement in early- to mid-2013 on new measures to prevent right whales from being entangled in fishing gear. Entanglement can lead to the long and painful death of large whales as fishing lines cut into their blubber and limit their ability to feed and swim. I’m a member of the team advising NMFS on the entanglement problem, and am pushing strongly for the agency to take prompt action to protect right whales and other endangered species from this serious threat.
We’re also urging NMFS to move forward with proposed changes to the critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale. Defenders and our partners petitioned NMFS for expanded critical habitat back in 2009, calling for expanded protection of right whale breeding, calving and feeding grounds, and for the designation of their migratory corridor as critical habitat for the first time. When they failed to act on our petition, we took legal action, and NMFS promised a proposal before the end of 2011. We’re still waiting, but will continue our efforts to shake loose this important conservation measure.
North Atlantic right whales have a long road to recovery, and threats to the survival of the species abound. With your help, Defenders of Wildlife is continuing the fight to make our oceans a safer place for whales.
As an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C., much of my work involves the often invisible world of policy, laws, and court decisions. Every now and again, however, I have the incredible privilege of getting out to see the wildlife I work to protect. This past weekend, I got to do just that on a whale watching trip in one of the most important whale habitats on the East Coast of the United States—the waters off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
There were several whales in the water that day, but the most striking by far were the humpback mother and calf swimming alongside our boat. Locals told us that the mom was known as Mural, and that this was her third calf they’d identified over the years (as well as the first calf they’d seen this season). Not only did their beauty take my breath away as they gently rolled and swam close to each other and to our boat, but I was struck by how critically important our work to protect them really is. Those very whales I was watching might not have been there if it hadn’t been for our successful efforts to slow down ships and remove dangerous fishing gear from the water. And for the highly endangered North Atlantic right whales we heard were in the area (but couldn’t see because of extra protections that keep them free from disturbance by the public), it was enough to know they were there.
Whale watchers sight a humpback calf, courtesy WDCS
My trip out to see the whales was part of the fifth-annual naturalist training sponsored by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, and the Dolphin Fleet of Provincetown. And not only was I lucky enough to see humpback whales, fin whales, and white-sided dolphins swimming all around us, I also got to meet the wonderful folks in the whale watching community who are out educating the public about these animals every day. These folks who ride aboard the whale watch vessels and ensure that passengers know what they’re seeing are all incredibly well versed in the science and threats to the species, but this year the workshop organizers decided they would also benefit from the broader context of the policy work that ensures we all have amazing wildlife to enjoy.
That’s where I came in. And in exchange for talking about what I do from my desk in D.C.—how we use important laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act to make sure that these magnificent and imperiled species get to keep swimming in the waters off of New England—I got to learn from the folks who know these whales by name and be inspired both by what they do and what they see on a daily basis. All in all, not a bad day on the job.
The calf surfaces for air, courtesy Caroline Good.
With less than 400 right whales left on the planet, the loss of even one individual could lead to extinction for the species.
BOSTON (October 31, 2011)— Conservation and animal protection groups filed a lawsuit today asking a federal court in Massachusetts to hold the National Marine Fisheries Service accountable for continuing to allow four federal fisheries to injure and kill endangered whales, including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Already, 2011 has seen the death of two right whales from entanglement, as well as at least seven additional new entanglement reports for right whales. Since June alone, eight endangered humpback whales have been reported with first time entanglements.
“Every single right whale counts when it comes to ensuring the species’ survival, but the Fisheries Service continues to place whales at risk of injury and death,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for The Humane Society of the United States. “Safeguarding the right whale from entanglements in fishing gear is a vital step towards moving this species out of the emergency room and onto the path to recovery.”
“The Fisheries Service needs to take immediate action to put protections in place to make the fisheries safer. If they don’t act now, we will see the extinction of the right whale in our lifetime.”
“The Fisheries Service is well aware that North Atlantic right whales need better protections, yet it is allowing these fisheries to continue to operate without them,” said Sierra Weaver, attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “The Fisheries Service needs to take immediate action to put protections in place to make the fisheries safer. If they don’t act now, we will see the extinction of the right whale in our lifetime.”
“In an increasingly busy ocean, the survival and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale depends on protecting each individual from entanglement-related injuries and deaths,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, senior biologist for Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
In January of this year, scientists from NOAA Fisheries Service attempted to save an entangled right whale, sedating her before removing the gear (Photo courtesy of EcoHealth Alliance).
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whales, with an estimated population of less than 400 individuals. In fact, the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) has previously stated that the “loss of even a single individual may contribute to the extinction of the species.”
NMFS has cited entanglements in commercial fishing gear as one of the most significant threats to the right whale’s survival and recovery. Yet, almost every year since 2002, at least one entangled right whale has been found dead or so gravely injured that death is deemed likely.
In addition to right whales, fishing gear used by the American lobster, northeast multispecies, monkfish, and spiny dogfish fisheries continues to injure and kill endangered humpback, fin, and sei whales.
Today’s lawsuit was filed by Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in the federal district court for Massachusetts.
Scientists from NOAA Fisheries Service attempted to save the entangled right whale on Jan. 15, sedating her before removing the gear (Photo courtesy of EcoHealth Alliance).
Public News Service-FL
BUTLER BEACH, Fla. (Feb 14, 2011) – The death of a rare North Atlantic right whale on Butler Beach earlier this month has prompted renewed calls to authorities for quicker action on rules that could help avoid such entanglement deaths in the future. Only about 400 right whales are known to exist, and wildlife advocates are urging regulators and the industry to do a better job of keeping the whales away from fishing lines that can kill them.
Michael Moore is a senior researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. When right whales get tangled in fishing line, he says the outcomes are not good for the struggling animal.
“It’s kind-of like loading a pickup truck full of gear or towing a trailer. It adds to the fuel consumption hugely.”
One solution Moore suggests is getting as much line out of the water as possible, to avoid these preventable deaths.
In 2008, Defenders of Wildlife won a lawsuit to help advance the fishing industry’s transition to sinking ground-line, and the organization continues to work in the courts and with the government to end right whale entanglement. The group is also pushing the government to move more quickly to address the problem of vertical lines in fixed fishing gear, which also threaten the whales.
“We still want a vibrant fishing industry, obviously, but we need to find a way that we can have that fishing industry and have these whales live healthy lives at the same time.”