In June 2020, The Pew Charitable Trusts petitioned the secretary of commerce to take emergency action to protect right whales from entanglement by closing high-risk areas to fishing gear with ropes, and since then, the crisis for this critically endangered species has only deepened:
- First, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries)—the federal agency in the Department of Commerce tasked with protecting the species—in October lowered its 2018 estimate of living North Atlantic right whales from 412 to 383 and said that only 366 were still alive in January 2019, the latest time frame for which a peer-reviewed estimate is available.
- Then in December, NOAA Fisheries released long-delayed suggested regulations for right whales. However, the proposal was so inadequate, based on outdated data and featuring measures that would not meet the Endangered Species Act’s requirement to avoid extinction, that Pew’s official comment called on the agency to withdraw it.
- And in the new year, the picture has grown even more grim. New science, released in February 2021, suggested that right whale deaths are likely undercounted and are mostly due to entanglement in fishing gear. And then in May, scientists released data showing that right whales are in such poor health that their bodies have gotten smaller over the past several decades.
So today, Pew is submitting to the new secretary of commerce, Gina Raimondo, its updated request for her immediate action, and is now joined by Environment America, Environment Massachusetts, Georgia Wildlife Federation, and One Hundred Miles. The additional year of data and scientific analysis reinforces the need for the four areas that Pew identified last year to be closed at certain times of the year to fishing with gear that uses vertical ropes and argues for closing two additional areas in the Gulf of Maine that the agency identified in its proposed regulations. Specifically, the use of vertical line gear should be prohibited in an area south of Cape Cod year-round and in five parts of the Gulf of Maine during key seasons when right whales are present.
These targeted closures deliver the most protection for right whales with the least amount of impact on fishermen. For example, in the proposed closure south of Cape Cod, science shows that the density of roped fishing gear is low but that the injuries that whales sustain from that gear tend to be severe. The seasonal closures off Maine are mostly in waters beyond where a reported 76% of the Maine lobster industry operates. Closing these areas to fishing gear with vertical lines could provide significant benefits while largely avoiding the nearshore waters that support most commercial fishing.
Given that new regulations will likely not take effect for at least another year, Pew is asking that the commerce secretary take immediate action to close these areas in the interim.
Additionally, Pew today released a public survey that it conducted earlier this year, which shows widespread support for effective government action to protect right whales, including for closing high-risk areas, such as those outlined in Pew’s request, while rulemaking is underway. The vast majority of respondents also favored government funding for a transition to fishing gear that is safer for right whales, and most are also willing to pay more for lobster caught using such gear.
Science, public opinion, and federal law are united: The department of commerce must take swift and effective action by immediately closing high-risk areas to vertical line fishing gear as part of its duty to prevent the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale.
Peter Baker is a director and Katharine Deuel is a senior officer overseeing The Pew Charitable Trusts’ efforts to protect Atlantic Ocean marine life off the U.S. and Canada.