ELLSWORTH — Four conservation and wildlife-protection groups have filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service seeking immediate emergency action under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect endangered right whales from entanglement.
Specifically, the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife and the Humane Society of the United States are asking “that NMFS find that deaths and serious injuries of North Atlantic right whales from commercial fisheries are having, or are likely to have, an immediate and significant adverse impact on the species,” the petition states.
“Petitioners further request that NMFS take certain measures to help alleviate such emergency, including but not limited to (1) issuing emergency regulations that prohibit the use of trap/pot and gillnet fishing using static vertical lines in particular areas; and (2) expanding two existing closures both geographically and temporally, based on the best scientific information available.”
The areas targeted for emergency closure are off the coast of Massachusetts.
“At least 32 right whales have been killed by human activities in the last three years alone, yet the federal government is still sitting on its hands,” said Erica Fuller a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. “The window to save this species is closing, and we’re left with no other option but to file this petition. The federal government must declare this situation what it is — an emergency — and take action to protect these animals now.”
In April, Judge James E. Boasberg ruled that NMFS violated the federal Endangered Species Act in 2014 when it adopted new rules governing the lobster fishery. The judge found that the agency failed to adequately consider the risk that endangered right whales could be seriously injured or killed if they become entangled in the vertical end lines that connect traps on the sea floor to buoys on the surface. NMFS has until May 31 to issue new regulations. The petition asks that additional protections be put in place while the long-term rulemaking process is ongoing.
The petition states that “ropeless” fishing gear could be allowed in areas where vertical lines are prohibited. That concession, however, “completely disregards the fact that no such technology is currently commercially available, let alone proven to be safe, effective or financially viable for lobstermen,” noted members of Maine’s congressional delegation in a Dec. 16 letter to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur L. Ross Jr. Their letter voiced “strong opposition” to the “shortsighted” petition, which they said ignored the impact of ship strikes and entanglements in Canadian waters on the shrinking whale population.
“As you know, significant work to develop and implement new right whale regulations is currently underway between the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the lobster industry,” they wrote to Ross. “This petition would undermine years-long cooperative efforts, which are now in the final stages of approval, and set a dangerous precedent of bypassing the regulatory process and excluding the input of lobstermen and seafood harvesters whose lives and livelihoods would be most impacted.”
An estimated 366 North Atlantic right whales remain. The population was brought to the brink of extinction by the early 1890s due to commercial whaling. While that threat is gone, entanglements, ship strikes and environmental pressures continue to imperil the population. The petition notes that even a single whale death could be catastrophic for the species’ continued survival.
According to NOAA fisheries, the whales have been experiencing an “unusual mortality event” since 2017. Since then, the agency has recorded 32 dead stranded whales (21 in Canada; 11 in the United States). The leading cause of death is “human interaction,” from entanglements or vessel strikes. Since 2017, 13 live whales have been documented with serious injuries from entanglements or vessel strikes.
In November, the calving season got off to a devastating start when the first documented newborn washed ashore dead on an island off North Carolina. A necropsy determined the animal died during or shortly after birth. There was no evidence of human interaction.