Groups Demand U.S., Canada Act to Save North Atlantic Right Whales

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Critically Endangered Whales Suffered Mass Die-off on East Coast in 2017

BOSTON— Conservation and animal-protection groups today sought action by the United States and Canada to prevent painful, deadly entanglements in fishing gear that threaten the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. In letters to Canadian officials and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, the groups demanded action to reduce risks to these imperiled whales. North Atlantic right whales, one of the world’s most endangered mammals with fewer than 500 individual animals remaining on Earth, lost nearly 3 percent of their population this year.

“Right whales risk spiraling toward extinction if we don’t protect them from deadly fishing gear,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This has been a tragic year for a species already teetering on the brink. U.S. and Canadian officials need to do everything they can to prevent gear entanglements and the slow, painful deaths they can cause.

The groups say the Fisheries Service must fulfill its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act to review protective measures for the species and adopt additional protective measures to prevent further entanglements. The demands were made in a legal notice that gives the agency at least 60 days to correct the violations before the groups can file a lawsuit.

The coalition also sent a letter to Canadian officials, urging the national government to immediately adopt measures to reduce the risk of ship strikes and gear entanglement in Canadian waters, especially in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where most of the known right whale deaths occurred this summer.

The letter requests that Canadian officials issue a permanent rule requiring ships to slow to 10 knots or less in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy when right whales are present, similar to the temporary rule put in place after the recent spate of deaths this summer. The letter also asks that Canadian officials issue rules to reduce the risk of entanglement in fishing gear, such as restricting the amount of snow crab gear in the Gulf of St. Lawrence when right whales are present.

At least 14 right whales have died in U.S. and Canadian waters since April 2017. Many of those deaths were likely caused by ship strikes and fishing-gear entanglements, although investigations are still underway. New studies indicate that the population has been declining in abundance since 2010 and that entanglements in fishing gear may be overwhelming recovery efforts.

“Only five right whale calves were born this season, the lowest number in recent years,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “New research shows that the stress of dragging heavy gear and ropes around is preventing females from successfully bearing young. Whale entanglements are preventable, and the U.S. and Canadian governments need to step up and act before it’s too late.”

Entanglement can cause immediate death from drowning, or the animals can die over an extended period from injuries, infections or starvation. Entanglements can also sap whales of their strength and decrease reproductive success. From 2010 to 2016, entanglement-related deaths accounted for 85 percent of diagnosed right whale mortalities.

“The National Marine Fisheries Service is mandated to protect endangered marine mammals like the North Atlantic right whale,” said Anna Frostic, senior wildlife attorney for The Humane Society of the United States. “Unfortunately, NMFS is failing to perform its duties under federal law, causing devastating impacts to this critically endangered species.”

Today’s notice to the Fisheries Service asserts that its management of the American lobster fishery violates the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The action seeks to force the agency to reexamine the fishery’s impacts on North Atlantic right whales and adopt additional measures to prevent more entanglements in the future.

“The climate is changing and right whales are shifting their habitats. The existing management measures are based on historic data and must be revised to reflect their current habitat use. When you move a school, it’s important to move the crossing guards, too,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation – North America.

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