NOAA Must Take Emergency Measures to Save Right Whales
The Trump-era proposed rulemaking intended to reduce entanglements of North Atlantic right whales in fishing gear is a death sentence for the species. The Biden administration must take emergency measures to immediately protect the North Atlantic right whales from extinction.
A deadly combination of incidental entanglement in commercial fishing gear and vessel strikes have pushed North Atlantic right whales to a knife-edge. Fourteen calves born this season are a clear demonstration of the species’ ability to recover but, without immediate protection, the possibility of extinction inches nearer by the day.
New science shows that there are even fewer right whales than we thought. Since 2011, about 218 right whales have died from fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes—a rate of roughly 24 whale deaths per year. In October 2020, NOAA Fisheries released a preliminary estimate stating that only 366 individuals remained alive in January 2019. Scientists at the New England Aquarium subsequently released a new population estimate of 356 whales for the end of 2019, and now believe there are only about 70 breeding females in the population.
The death or serious injury of even one right whale per year is unsustainable if the population is to recover.
The long-delayed proposed rulemaking was viewed by many as the right whale’s last hope to bring an end to deaths (including serious injuries that will lead to death) caused by entanglement in vertical buoy lines associated with the U.S. Northeast Region lobster and crab trap/pot fishery. But the proposed rulemaking has serious flaws.
First, the proposed rulemaking is based on outdated information and does not factor in the significant new scientific information on the right whales’ recent decline. The overarching goal of the rulemaking is to reduce serious injuries and mortalities of right whales to below a rate called “Potential Biological Removal” or “PBR.” PBR is the number of incidental human-caused deaths per year that will not prevent a species from recovering. NOAA Fisheries used a PBR value of 0.9 when it developed the rule and determined that a 60 percent reduction in risk was adequate. However, the new information dictates that PBR should be 0.7 and risk reduction needs to be at least 70 percent if the species to recover. The foundation of the proposed rulemaking is therefore fundamentally flawed.
Second, the management measures proposed in the rulemaking are entirely insufficient to achieve the level of risk reduction needed to save the species in the short-term or long-term. The proposed rulemaking includes some meaningful measures that reduce the number of buoy lines in the water, including putting more traps between buoys, capping the number of buoy lines at half the number used in 2017, and restricting the use of buoy lines in some high-risk areas by using seasonal fishing closures. However, too much emphasis is placed on using “weaker” rope that is assumed to be more likely to break if a whale becomes entangled. But the effectiveness of weaker rope is entirely theoretical. Whales still become entangled in weaker rope and are just as likely to suffer from the sub-lethal impacts of entanglement, such as impaired health and reproduction stemming from chronic stress and malnutrition. Juveniles and calves are also just as likely to die in weak rope. Weaker rope should not be viewed as a risk reduction measure by NOAA Fisheries.
NOAA Fisheries has the authority and the responsibility to act now to stop right whale deaths and injuries in U.S. waters.
Stronger protections must be developed to save right whales from extinction. NOAA Fisheries must revise and strengthen the measures contained within the proposed rulemaking to reduce the risk of serious injury and mortality of right whales to a level compliant with federal law
While stronger rules are developed and implemented, right whales must be immediately protected from entanglement in fishing gear. The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires NOAA Fisheries to implement emergency measures when it finds that a commercial fishery is having, or likely to have, an immediate and significant adverse impact on a species.
Emergency rulemaking would put in place some immediate measures to protect right whales while NOAA Fisheries gets the rule right. Measures could include fisheries closures in certain areas where right whales are especially vulnerable to entanglement.
Take action now and tell NOAA Fisheries to take emergency measures to save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction.