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For millennia, every autumn and spring, one of the largest animals on Earth has followed ancient migratory pathways up and down the coast of North America. For nearly three decades, people and organizations around our ocean planet have marked World Oceans Day, raising awareness of the importance of the ocean, marine habitats, and the species who depend on them, including our own. This year, World Oceans Day will spotlight innovation and highlight promising paths forward for the health of our oceans and our planet.
One of the most critical marine conservation issues my colleagues and I are focused on this World Oceans Day and throughout the year is ensuring the survival of the North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis. The veil between life and death is borne by all species, but much thinner for this one than others. Beneath the tattered barrier, we find a behemoth facing extinction.
As one of the most endangered species in the world, the North Atlantic right whale population today hovers around 400 individuals, a cataclysmic decline from tens of thousands in the early 1800s. A once abundant species has grown barren and sparse. A recent IFAW-led study found that approximately 90 percent of the known causes of right whale deaths in the past 15 years were a direct result of human-induced causes, including ship-strikes (when a ship hits a whale) and chronic entanglement in commercial fishing gear. These twin threats are deadly and still prevalent, and the numbers of whales they kill each year now surpasses the number of right whales calves being born. We are just beyond the point where the loss of even one individual has devastating consequences for the population at large.
Innovation to the Rescue
As we mark this World Oceans Day, it is the ingenuity and innovation of another endangered North Atlantic species — fishermen — that holds the most promise for saving the right whale. And why? Because outmoded vertical buoy lines (or rope) are the greatest threat to right whales. Whales that become entangled and cannot break free are condemned to die a cruel and needless death, sometimes after months of suffering. And the loss of a single right whale brings the species closer to extinction.
Ropeless fishing, being deployed as you read this by New England fishermen, presents a real solution. This innovative technology removes vertical rope from the water, except during active gear retrieval. Dramatically reducing the risk of entanglement with this technology allows fishermen to continue to pursue their time-honored livelihoods, reducing the need for additional Federal and State regulations which could threaten their very existence.
In the United States, the SAVE Right Whales Act represents an important step toward this solution. Currently, under consideration in Congress, the Act would provide $5 million per year over ten years for conservation grants to help fishermen and mariners develop and deploy innovative technologies to reduce right whale entanglements and vessel collisions. The bill would also fund collaborative partnerships among members of the fishing and shipping industries, states, scientists, non-governmental organizations and others to find promising solutions that will protect right whales.
In Canada, IFAW is working with Federal, Provincial, industry, and NGO leaders to help shape comprehensive measures as well to protect the North Atlantic right whale, including flexible closures of critical habitat areas and speed restrictions triggered by right whale sightings. These measures will help manage risks and threats to right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy. You can read more and provide your comments here: DFO Right Whale Action Plan.
Success in this leviathan endeavor requires an engaged public encouraging industry, government, and non-profit leaders to rise and meet the moment. Without citizen support, change moves too slowly, or in the wrong direction. Just last week, vital protections for the first national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean were repealed in favor of commercial fishing – putting critically endangered right whales and other ocean life at immediate risk.
IFAW and other stakeholders working on this challenge are resolved the North Atlantic Right Whale will not go extinct on our watch. Viable solutions are within reach. To miss this moment would be to forsake our generation’s role as stewards of the natural environment. In celebration of World Oceans Day, we ask that you join us in a collective call to action and help answer one of the most pressing conservation challenges of our time: Will we save them? It’s the right thing to do.
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