The Biden administration refused Jan. 20 to extend emergency protections under two federal wildlife protection laws to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
A December 2022 petition sought federal regulatory intervention to prevent ships from striking females of the species and their calves. Specifically, the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation sought application of existing speed limits for vessels to all ships exceeding 35 feet in length and whenever a right whale is observed.
The petition invoked the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
According to the four environmental advocacy organizations that filed the request, “in 2020 and 2021, vessel strikes in U.S. waters alone killed or seriously injured at least four right whales, including a reproductive female.” That is a large number relative to the estimated 340 living individuals of the species still in existence.
Collisions with ships, according to the Dec. 2022 petition, “kill or injure right whales by causing blunt force trauma resulting in fractures, hemorrhage, and/or blood clots. Sharp force trauma, including direct propeller strikes, can result in fatal blood loss, lacerations, and/or amputations.”
The environmental advocacy groups also warned that ” nonlethal collisions may weaken or otherwise adversely affect right whales such that they are more likely to succumb to subsequent injury or death.”
NOAA Fisheries concedes that ships with a length as short as 30 feet can kill right whales. “Since 1999, we have confirmed eight events in which North Atlantic right whales were struck by boats less than 65 feet long,” the agency said in a March 2022 press release. “These strikes occurred across all seasons and were observed in waters off Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida.”
North Atlantic right whales are dark in color and lack a dorsal fin, which means they can be difficult for mariners to detect. Females and offspring are particularly vulnerable to being hit. “They spend nearly all their time at or near the surface of the water but are not always easily visible,” according to NOAA Fisheries. “And disturbance to mother-calf pairs could affect behaviors, like nursing, that are critical to the calves’ health and survival.”
Environmentalists were critical of the decision.
“This is an extinction-level emergency,” Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said. “Every mother right whale and calf is critical to the survival of the species. Protecting right whales from vessel strikes is even more crucial after the Senate’s recent omnibus bill, which delayed efforts to curb right whale entanglements in lobster gear.”
“We expect our leaders to make hard decisions to fix problems,” Gib Brogan, a program director for Oceana, said. “By rejecting this request to quickly act on its own proposal, the Biden administration is assuming risk for this species.”
Eubalaena glacialis is an endangered species under American law. Before European colonization of North America the population of the species may have numbered in the tens of thousands. Hunting of North Atlantic right whales began in the late 19th century. A quest for whale oil was a driver of the extensive killing. E. glacialis has never recovered from extensive hunting that began in the late 19th century.
North Atlantic right whales calve only off the coasts of Georgia and Florida in an area designated as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act in 1994. Females give birth between Nov. 15 and Apr. 15.
The administration of President William J. Clinton imposed in 1999 a mandatory reporting obligation on ships moving through the calving area. The MRO requires vessels larger than 300 gross tons to notify a shore-based station of entry to the zone. American law also imposes a speed limit on ships traveling in North Atlantic right whale habitat.
NOAA Fisheries is currently considering revisions to the 1999 MRO rule.
The agency must also delay until 2028 efforts to limit the adverse impacts of lobstering equipment on individuals of the species. Congress included a rider to that effect in an unrelated bill enacted into law late last year.
A July 2022 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit had upheld a regulation that prohibited the use of vertical buoy lines, which entangle and kill individual North Atlantic right whales, between mid-October and January.
E. glacialis is a Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species Appendix I species, which means that is among the species tracked by CITES that are most endangered.
Adult North Atlantic right whales can grow to more than 50 feet in length.
The common name “right whale” relates to the tendency of individual corpses to rise to the surface after being harpooned.