All Hands on Deck to Save the Endangered North Atlantic Right Whale

Seventeen right whales have died this year in a crisis that demands immediate attention and action

right whales

Photo: Brian Skerry

2017 has been a heartbreaking year for anyone following the news about the shocking number of North Atlantic right whale deaths.

With fewer than 460 remaining, right whales are one of the most endangered whale species in the world, so even one death threatens the species’ existence. Tragically, the number of right whale deaths this year now stands at 17, making this an urgent crisis that requires an all-hands-on-deck approach.

Fortunately, scientists, experts, and advocacy groups are taking action. At Conservation Law Foundation, we’ve long advocated protections for right whales, and we’re ramping up our efforts in the fight to save these majestic creatures living right here in New England’s backyard.

A critical moment for right whales

North Atlantic right whales, which are unique to our coast, are declining rapidly. Even before the tragic rise in deaths this year, scientists predicted right whales could be extinct by 2040 if we don’t act quickly to save them.

The reality is that human activities pose the biggest threats to right whales. Ship strikes, climate change impacts, and efforts by the fossil fuel industry to pursue oil and gas exploration are all having an impact. But the number one threat to the species’ survival is fishing gear.

We know that entanglement in fixed fishing gear such as lobster pots, gillnets, and hook and line gear accounts for a staggering 85 percent of deaths in recent years. Entanglement can kill or injure right whales, and they experience significant pain and suffering when forced to tow heavy gear.

Even when a whale is able to break free, research shows that entanglement has lasting impacts: it can cause long-term declines in health and reproduction, jeopardizing the already fragile population’s ability to bounce back to healthy levels. To make matters worse, we know from scarring data that whales are entangled again and again over the course of their lives, compounding the risks for death or poor health.

Given an already decimated population, this human-caused harm is unacceptable. We believe it’s also preventable.

Enforcing federal protections

The federal government is required by law to protect right whales. Unfortunately, the measures implemented by regulators over the last few decades have not gone far enough to save right whales from the threat of extinction.

What’s more, despite the catastrophic recent deaths, fishery regulators are proposing to open up 5,400 square nautical miles of New England’s ocean that was previously closed to commercial fishing. If approved, this would put even more right whales at risk from fishing gear.

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal regulators are required to examine how the commercial fishing activities they permit and manage affect right whales, as well as any solutions that could reduce threats to them. This analysis is the first key step in reducing the harm inflicted upon endangered right whales.

Federal regulators must act now to ensure that right whales have a chance to recover. This means that they must reevaluate activities that threaten right whales, including commercial fishing, in light of the best available science and information, and identify solutions to prevent this species from going extinct.

If regulators don’t take immediate action, CLF will enforce the law in court.

Launching point

CLF has the legal expertise necessary to put pressure on fishery regulators to ensure they consider the best available science and implement long-term plans to save this ailing species.

That’s why, this week, CLF and Earthjustice served two formal notices of lawsuits against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to hold the agency accountable to its legal duty to protect right whales from the threats posed by commercial fishing.

These notices are a launching point in our push for more analysis, collaboration, and action from the federal government to protect this endangered species.

CLF fights for right whales

CLF has fought to protect right whales since the 1970s – and this isn’t the first time we’ve sued the federal government to protect right whales from the fatal threats posed by fishing gear. But gear and fishing efforts have changed over the years, and so have the risks to the fragile whale population.

We will keep fighting to ensure our federal agencies are fulfilling their responsibility to protect this critically endangered species.

Extinction is forever – and we will not let the magnificent North Atlantic right whale disappear from New England’s ocean waters on our watch.

Before you go... CLF is working every day to create real, systemic change for New England’s environment. And we can’t solve these big problems without people like you. Will you be a part of this movement by considering a contribution today? If everyone reading our blog gave just $10, we’d have enough money to fund our legal teams for the next year.