- The U.S. government has rejected requests to implement emergency measures to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from vessel collisions during the species’ calving season, which takes place between November and April each year.
- Some protections for right whales are already in place, but experts say urgent modifications are needed to protect pregnant females, lactating mothers and calves.
- There are only about 340 individual North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and birth rates are low.
- The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed similar protections for right whales, including the enforcement of speed limits across more extensive areas of the ocean and for the rules to apply to more vessels — but charity workers are cautious about the outcome of this proposal.
The U.S. government has denied two petitions to immediately protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales during the species’ calving season, raising concerns that this population of whales will continue to decline without intervention. There are currently about 340 of these whales left, making them one of the most threatened cetaceans in the world.
The two petitions — one filed by a consortium of NGOs, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), and the other by the NGO Oceana — asked the U.S. government to provide emergency protection for North Atlantic whales (Eubalaena glacialis). They called for three measures aimed to reduce vessel collision, a leading cause of death for these animals. The proposed rules included establishing speed limits for ships in designated coastal zones between North Carolina and Florida during the calving season; requiring speed reductions outside of these zones when a single whale or a mother-and-calf pair is spotted; and making such rules applicable for vessels 35 feet (about 11 meters) in length and longer.
There are already some seasonal speed zones on the southeast U.S. coast, but experts say they’re not big enough to encompass the species’ entire range, especially as climate change alters the whales’ movements. Additionally, vessels don’t need to slow down outside these zones unless in the presence of three individual whales, and the current rules only apply to vessels larger than 65 feet, or about 20 meters. However, as experts point out, smaller vessels have been responsible for right whale deaths, as seen in a collision between a 54-foot (16.5-m) sportfishing yacht and a calf and mother off St. Augustine, Florida, in February 2021. The calf’s dead body washed onto the beach the next day, and the mother, known to researchers as Infinity, hasn’t been seen again.
The petitioners say the proposed emergency protective measures were aimed at protecting pregnant whales, lactating mothers and calves, since they tend to spend more time at the water’s surface between November and April. They also argue that safeguarding every individual right whale is critical for the species’ future survival.
“We know that protecting all adults, juveniles and calves is essential to helping this species recover,” Gib Brogan, Oceana’s fisheries campaign manager and signee of the group’s petition, told Mongabay. “And we are at that critical point for the species that we need to do everything to help them come back.”
Both petitions mimic a proposal by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), also known as NOAA Fisheries, which presents a set of similar rules to protect the species. In a 2013-14 report, NOAA designated the North Atlantic right whale as “a recovery priority #1” since the species’ “extinction is almost certain in the immediate future” without intervention. NOAA’s proposal opened for public comment in October 2022, receiving substantial support from right whale advocates and resistance from stakeholders in the recreational boating and fishing sectors. But since NOAA has yet to enact these plans, charity workers applied for interim protection. Yet the Biden administration denied both petitions on the basis that NOAA is currently working on long-term strategies to protect the species, and that pursuing emergency measures would pull “resources away from this effort.”
“It’s frustrating because we’re only halfway through the calving season,” Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of WDC North America and co-signee of her group’s petition, told Mongabay. “We know that the fatality of a mother and calf happened in the second half of the calving season previously off in Florida, so there are still significant risks, particularly from vessels that are under 65 feet in length. It’s a safety issue for the vessels as well. That boat that struck that mother-calf pair off Florida … was a total loss, and it was a $1.2 million vessel.”
A 2013 study showed that when vessels slow down to 10 knots (18.5 kilometers per hour), mortality risk levels are reduced by 80-90%. However, an ongoing problem is that many vessels do not obey speed limits, whether the limits are voluntary or mandatory, putting right whales in the line of danger.
Besides vessel strikes, right whales often get entangled in fishing gear, which motivated plans to introduce ropeless fishing techniques to reduce fatalities.
There are only about 340 North Atlantic right whales, including approximately 80 females of reproductive age. However, experts have observed low birth rates for several years, raising concerns about the species’ viability. So far this year, there are 11 living calves, which Brogan said is “below average.”
“Scientists tell us that we need to get over 20 [calves] every year to be average and that we need to be above 50 if we’re going to bring the species back,” he said.
Brogan said there may not be enough reproductive females to produce 50 calves a year, but there are enough to have 20.
“It is an attainable goal,” he said. “But we need mothers that are unstressed, that have the blubber reserves to support having a calf. And across their range, we need them to be free of stressors like boat traffic and entanglements with fishing gear to allow them to be healthy enough to support calves.”
On Jan. 7, 41-year-old North Atlantic right whale known as Spindle was seen in the waters off Georgia with her 10th known calf, making her the most productive mother in recorded history, according to researchers.
However, the next day, an aerial survey team spotted a 4-year-old right whale known to be Spindle’s offspring with serious entanglement injuries. Experts don’t expect the whale to survive. The day after that, fisheries officials found a dead calf near Morehead City, North Carolina, although there was no evidence of a vessel strike or entanglement.
Without emergency protection measures, the safety of North Atlantic right whales relies on implementing the NOAA proposal, said Asmutis-Silvia, adding that she received information that the agency is planning to finalize the proposal in June 2023. However, Asmutis-Silvia said she’s unsure if the proposal would actually be approved in June, and whether or not it will be approved in its current form.
“There is precedent to say that [even though] they plan a day to release, there are delays, and then rules come out looking very different than how they were proposed,” she said. “So we don’t have any guarantee it’s going to come out in June, and we have absolutely no guarantee that it’s going to come out the way the proposal was laid out.”
Asmutis-Silvia said there were delays before NOAA approved vessel speed rules in 2008 to protect North Atlantic right whales, and that the rules differed from what was set out in a proposal, which has prompted her current concerns.
When Mongabay reached out to NOAA for more information about the proposal, Andrea Gomez, a spokesperson for the agency, said NOAA is still reviewing the public comments it received from its proposal and that it “anticipates taking final action on the proposed rule in 2023.”
“We are watching this very carefully,” Brogan said of the NOAA proposal, “and pushing very hard to have the government approve the proposal they put out. It was what’s needed for the whales. Any rollbacks from what the government proposed will have significant effects on the protections for the whales and leave them unprotected.”
Conn, P. B., & Silber, G. K. (2013). Vessel speed restrictions reduce risk of collision-related mortality for North Atlantic right whales. Ecosphere, 4(4), 1-16. doi:10.1890/es13-00004.1
Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a senior staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.
Banner image caption: A female North Atlantic right whale and calf off the coast of North Carolina in 2021. Image by Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute & USACE / NOAA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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