NOAA Delays Urgently Needed Right Whale Protections Again

A Right Whale being disentangled from fishing gear     Photo: David Abel, Twitter

The Boston Globe’s David Abel reported on Twitter last week that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is, according to court filings, delaying new protections for critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whales even after a court found the agency in violation of the Endangered Species Act for its failure to take action to protect them.  NOAA will not issue new rules until May 2021 — more than two years after a special team assembled by the agency voted to reduce the number of lobster gear lines in the Gulf of Maine by about 50 percent.  The Pew Charitable Trusts immediately petitioned for emergency action by NOAA to close certain areas in waters off New England to lobster and crab pots during times when right whales are likely to be present.

Why This Matters:  There are fewer than 400 North Atlantic Right Whales remaining. NOAA had promised the new rules by the end of last year, then by March, then July.  Now NOAA says proposed rules won’t come until “late summer or early fall,” depending on a review by White House.  The President was just in Maine and got an earful from lobster fishers, which begs the question of whether there has been political interference to keep the protections tied up in the agency.
Lobster and Crab Pots Entangle Whales
There are two issues facing Right Whales and causing their deaths — collisions with ships and entanglements in fishing gear with vertical lines that go from the surface to the seafloor, like traditional lobster and crab pots.  There are tens of thousands of pots (and millions of lines) in the waters off New England now, and this is also the season when North Atlantic Right Whales tend to congregate there.  According to Pew’s petition, “deaths and serious injuries of right whales continue to be well over what the population can biologically sustain, and more than four times the legally allowable limit. Entanglement in gear is the biggest threat to the species’ survival.”   They further allege that NOAA is out of compliance with the Endangered Species Act because their scientific opinion on whether and how the lobster and crab fisheries harm the whales is out of date, the agency has not given the fisheries a permit to “take whales” (i.e. to go ahead and fish despite whale deaths).  Indeed, NOAA Fisheries has done nothing to increase protections for the North Atlantic right whale since 2014, and since then their numbers have declined precipitously.
Pew argues that closing “some areas to fishing with the most harmful gear could immediately lower the risk to the whales while the federal government develops longer-term rules to reduce whale entanglements in fishing gear.”  The Court now must rule on whether the agency can further delay issuing rules to protect the Right Whale.  Lobster fishers might be willing to consider a new type of fishing gear that has no rope lines, but so far the agency has not required it and it is currently very expensive.
To Go Deeper:  There is a documentary film called “Entangled” about the Right Whale and NOAA’s failure to protect it — it will be released in a few weeks.  You can read about it here.  And read about potentially life-saving new lobster fishing gear technology here.

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