Court Issues Leviathan Ruling In Favor of Right Whales

Photo: NOAA

A federal court in Washington, D.C. handed the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale a leviathan victory ruling that the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service’s decision to open up two areas amounting to 3,000 square miles off the New England coast to gillnet fishing violated the Endangered Species Act.  The Court restored the previous prohibition on the use of gillnets by fishermen in the whales’ critical habitat.

Why This Matters:  There are only 400 North Atlantic Right Whales remaining and 30 have died as a result of ship strikes and gear entanglements since 2017.  In recent years, the areas that the government re-opened to fishing have become increasingly important as gathering and feeding spots for right whales, with up to a quarter of the population spotted in these areas during some seasons of the year.  Gillnets are walls of mesh designed to entangle animals that swim into them — they are also known to entangle, injure, and kill right whales.

Environmental Groups Cheered the Decision

  • Marine Campaigner CT Harry of the International Fund for Animal Welfare told ODP, “This week’s ruling is a resounding win for the North Atlantic right whale, whose numbers hover in the low hundreds and perilously close to the brink of extinction as a result of anthropogenic threats including chronic entanglement resulting from commercial fishing gear and ship strikes.”
  • “Expanded fishing in a right whale hot spot flies in the face of the Endangered Species Act,” said Erica Fuller, a Senior Attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation — one of the groups that brought the case. “This ruling rightfully reverses a dangerous course and will give right whales the protection they need from fishing gear. We cannot afford to lose even one more of these critically endangered creatures.”
  • Steve Mashuda, Managing Attorney for Earthjustice’s Oceans Program explained, “Rather than pull out all the stops to arrest this decline, the Trump administration took a see-no-evil approach and expanded the gauntlet of fishing gear that can harm and kill these whales without considering how this would affect the population. The Court’s decision rejects the government’s attempt to whistle past the graveyard when it comes to protecting this icon of the Atlantic.”

The Court Decision 

The Judge said this was not a close case — that the agency had impermissibly cut corners even though the rule opening up the areas to gillnet fishing had been pending in the agency since 2004.  The opinion opened with a quote from a classic American novel:

“Demonstrating that “there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men,” Herman Melville, Moby Dick 262 (W.W. Norton & Co. 1967) (1851), humans have brought the North Atlantic right whale to the brink of extinction.”

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