Governor's Proposed Cuts Threaten Endangered Whales in New York

 There was a great article in the New York Times this week about North Atlantic right whales, which the author referred to as "one of the most endangered, and closely watched, species on earth." The article indicates that the whales are having a good year for births, though its worldwide population is only estimated somewhere between 325 and 400 whales.

These whales have been heard singing in New York Harbor (listen and see where here) thanks to the first year of a whale monitoring program run by Cornell University that is designed to help us protect the right - and other endangered whales - from fatal ship strikes as they swim in the path of shipping lanes close to shore.

The timing on the Times' piece was eerily relevant for New York, as it went to print while continued funding for the program is sitting on the chopping block in Albany. On the same day this story ran, the head of the whale monitoring program, Christopher Clark, was in Albany with one of NRDC's ocean policy analysts, Alison Chase, presenting the progress he has made, and fighting for its continued funding, along with other important New York ocean and Great Lakes initiatives.

The whale monitoring work has taught us that endangered whales are swimming just off New York's coasts - sometimes as close as 10 miles from Times Square. The project uses a system of acoustic monitors to listen for endangered whales in New York's waters. Armed with this data, we can implement programs such as the one off Massachusetts, where a system of buoys listens for whales and alerts ships if whales are in the area, allowing ships to slow down so they don't run over them. The baseline data is also important to making sure we're siting offshore energy outside of their migratory pathways.

But in order to make this research a worthwhile investment, we need funding for the remaining two years of research through the Environmental Protection Fund in the state budget. This is just one of many important ocean and Great Lakes initiatives at risk of losing funding in the state budget through the EPF right now. Others include:

  • Restoring Great South Bay, its clam fishery and eelgrass. The 3 million clams seeded in Great South Bay have spawned nearly 300 million baby clams. This brings us great hope that the hard clam fishery can return, and these shellfish can help improve water quality in the bay.
  • Implementing a ground-breaking state program to reduce bycatch in New York fisheries, a practice that significantly adds to plummeting fish populations. The term "bycatch" refers to the unwanted marine life that commercial fishing boats throw back either dead or dying because they don't want or can't keep it.
  • Monitoring the health of commercially and recreationally important fish populations in order to better understand and manage them.

Without further funding, the money used to already get these multi-year projects off the ground will be a waste. That's why we need the state to make an investment of at least $8.5 million for ocean and Great Lakes projects in FY 2009-10, as part of an expanded EPF. (Tell the state legislature you want them to restore funding for New York's ocean and Great Lake resources here.)

These are challenging fiscal times, and, with steep budget shortfalls projected and tight staffing, we understand that the legislature is facing difficult decisions about what projects they are able to fund. But we also know that healthy ocean and Great Lakes resources are directly tied to a healthy New York economy.

Now, more than ever, they should not be cut. In fact, a council made up of nine state agencies (New York Ocean and Great Lakes Ecosystem Conservation Council) recently released a draft report that called for immediate action to restore New York's ocean and Great Lakes resources because of severe environmental and economic decline, including record beach closings and struggling commercial fisheries.

The EPF was established as a dedicated revenue source so that our critical environmental programs can be carried out in both good and bad economic times. Yet, Governor Paterson's 2009-10 budget slashes the EPF, including a more than 60 percent cut to ocean and Great Lakes funding. This money helps pay for on-the-ground action and important research. And without it, we will lose much of the progress New York State has made to restore these resources.

This is the opposite of what the state should be doing to protect the people and economy that rely on healthy ocean and Great Lakes resources.

To make matters even worse, a report issued by the Environmental Advocates of New York earlier this month has raised concerns that EPF recipients might not receive their funds from last year. The state must get the funds promised into the hands of the contractors moving these projects forward.

An editorial in the New York Times today said failure to fund the whale monitoring program "means a loss of valuable research data and the possibility of more ship strikes. And it also means a loss to our imagination." I couldn't agree more. And failure to fund New York's ocean and Great Lakes initiatives in the EPF will also mean a loss to our local economy.