Critically endangered whale dies due to inaction of Biden administration

A right whale swimming off the coast of New England

Photo: Brian Skerry/Steve De Neef

February 16, 2024 (BOSTON, MA) — The North Atlantic right whale reported dead on February 13th off the coast of Georgia was likely hit and killed by a vessel strike, NOAA announced today. In an effort to document a cause of death, the carcass was towed to shore and examined on February 15th. While final necropsy results are pending, the injuries documented are consistent with blunt-force trauma caused by a vessel strike. The whale was identified as female, born to first-time mother Pilgrim during the 2022-2023 calving season.

Only around 360 North Atlantic right whales survive today. The population is declining faster than birth rates can keep up due to vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements throughout their habitats in the U.S. and Canada. So far in 2024, five North Atlantic right whales have been reported dead or critically injured. In addition to this whale, #5120, another juvenile female was found dead earlier this month, likely due to a chronic entanglement in fishing gear. A third right whale, the 2024 calf of Juno, was spotted with wounds from a vessel strike in January, and both Half Note and #3780 have been seen without their newborns who are missing and presumed dead. 

“We are just six weeks into the New Year and we have now lost four times the number of right whales to human causes that NOAA says is sustainable for the population to recover,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, WDC-NA executive director. “Another needless loss from a vessel strike is a direct consequence of inaction by policymakers to release a pending rule and each time we lose a female, we lose her future calves. It’s inexcusable.”

Earlier this week, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, and Defenders of Wildlife asked a federal court to lift a stay and allow paused litigation to proceed, in pursuit of a deadline for final action on a proposed rule expanding protections for North Atlantic right whales from deadly vessel strikes. Filed in 2021, the case challenges the federal government’s unreasonable delay in acting to protect these critically endangered whales.

“She was found 20 miles off the coast, and we’ll probably never know exactly where she was hit,” said Erica Fuller, Senior Counsel at Conservation Law Foundation. “But what we do know, is that the seasonal speed zones need to be bigger and the regulated boats need to be smaller than the current rule. These deaths are tragic and preventable; it’s past time for regulators to move forward with the protections that these critically endangered whales need to survive.”  

Mother-calf pairs are particularly vulnerable to vessel strikes. In November, pregnant right whales begin their annual migration from northern feeding grounds to their only known calving grounds in the warm, shallow waters off the southeastern U.S., between North Carolina and Florida. Other right whales often make short trips down to the southeast during calving season. Mother-calf pairs spend a great deal of time at or near the water’s surface. For the past two years, the Biden administration has denied petitions by conservation groups calling for an emergency rule expanding protections for mothers and calves in the calving grounds.

“How many more right whales need to die needless deaths before the Biden administration will finally act to protect them from vessel strikes?” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “We petitioned the government in 2012, in 2020, in 2022, and again in 2023 to expand the vessel speed rule based on the accumulation of years’ worth of data that additional protections are vital to save the species from extinction, yet the government continues to fiddle while Rome burns to the ground.”

A 2008 vessel speed rule is the only protection right whales have from vessel strikes in U.S. waters. The rule applies only to vessels 65 feet and longer, requiring a speed limit of 10 nautical miles per hour in times and places right whales were considered most at risk in 2008. Since then, right whales have shifted their habitat in a changing climate. As waters warm and the primary prey of right whales move in response, right whales have shifted to new habitats where protections from vessel strikes and entanglements have largely been absent. New data show that vessels between 35 and 65 feet long have struck and killed right whales. NOAA Fisheries has repeatedly stated that a vessel speed rule expansion is necessary to safeguard right whales from extinction.

“It’s profoundly disturbing to see yet another North Atlantic right whale hit and killed by a vessel while we’re waiting for long-overdue federal protections. Every death brings these beleaguered whales one big step closer to extinction, especially when we lose young females, and we have no time to spare,” said Catherine Kilduff, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need immediate science-based action that slows vessels down to keep North Atlantic right whales in the ocean.”

In 2012 and 2020, the conservation groups petitioned the federal government to expand the 2008 rule. When the government failed to respond to those petitions, the groups filed suit in 2021. NOAA Fisheries published a proposal to expand the 2008 regulation in August 2022, but the rule has yet to be finalized. In the fall of 2022 and again in the fall of 2023, conservation groups petitioned the federal government to put interim protections in place via emergency rule to protect vulnerable whales during calving season, yet the government again refused to act.

In August 2022, conservation groups reached an agreement with the federal government to put the case on hold after NOAA Fisheries released its proposed rule. This week the groups moved to re-start the case based on the ongoing delay coupled with the January vessel strike of the calf in the southeastern calving grounds. NOAA Fisheries found it was likely caused by a vessel between 35 and 57 feet long.

If finalized, the proposed speed rule would apply to any vessel 35 feet in length or longer and would update seasonal speed zones to match right whale distribution. It would also require vessels to comply with temporary dynamic speed zones triggered by visual or acoustic right whale detections.

Experts are available for further comment.