On January 18, the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife filed a legal complaint against the federal government for failing to protect North Atlantic right whales from painful and deadly entanglement in fishing gear.
There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales left, which makes these 50-foot-long creatures among the rarest large mammals on the planet. The slow-reproducing species has been in decline for years, and alarmingly, a variety of human-related factors resulted in the deaths of another 20 or so animals in 2017 alone. Without more aggressive efforts to stop or mitigate human-caused threats, experts warn that these whales will be functionally extinct by 2040.
Much to our dismay, the National Marine Fisheries Service has failed to consider the full impacts of the American lobster fishery, which uses heavy, entangling lines on their gear that can be lethal to the whales. That’s the reason for our litigation, filed today, which asserts that NMFS’ approval and management of the American lobster fishery violates the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The type of gear used in lobster and similar fisheries—in which heavy traps are submerged and attached by rope to floating marker buoys—is particularly prone to entangling whales. Entanglements alone are responsible for about 85 percent of all diagnosable right whale deaths. Entanglement in fishing gear can not only result in immediate death from drowning, but can also cause the whales to die over a period of time from injuries, infections, and starvation, and can inhibit whales’ ability to reproduce.
Female whales, in particular, continue to die at an unsustainable rate as a result of fatal strikes by large vessels and entanglement in commercial fishing gear. In some recent years, only a single calf has survived.
This is not the first time The HSUS has taken action to protect this critically endangered species from a variety of threats. The HSUS and its partners filed a lawsuit in 2008 and a legal petition in 2012, that resulted in regulations mandating reduced ship speeds in high-risk areas to protect right whales from deadly collisions. The groups sued the government in 2010 and 2014, resulting in expansion of the species’ protected critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. And our previous entanglement lawsuits have resulted in regulations to mitigate the harm caused by certain types of fishing gear.
Just last year, The HSUS and HSI also sent a letter to the Canadian government, urging it to take action to reduce entanglements and ship strikes that have been increasing in Canadian waters.
Given the grave state of the North Atlantic right whale population, both the U.S. and Canadian governments must take immediate action if there’s any long-term hope for this whale species to survive. With today’s filing in court, we hope to assure that effective measures will be imposed in key habitat areas for this extraordinarily imperiled species.
This article was originally published on Wayne Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.