A North Atlantic right whale calf found dead on a beach in Florida in 2021. Image by FWC / Tucker Joenz, NOAA Fisheries (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

USA - U.S. refuses calls for immediate protection of North Atlantic right whales

The U.S. government has rejected requests to implement emergency measures to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from vessel collisions during the species’ calving season, which takes place between November and April each year.

  • Some protections for right whales are already in place, but experts say urgent modifications are needed to protect pregnant females, lactating mothers and calves.
  • There are only about 340 individual North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and birth rates are low.
  • The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed similar protections for right whales, including the enforcement of speed limits across more extensive areas of the ocean and for the rules to apply to more vessels — but charity workers are cautious about the outcome of this proposal.

The U.S. government has denied two petitions to immediately protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales during the species’ calving season, raising concerns that this population of whales will continue to decline without intervention. There are currently about 340 of these whales left, making them one of the most threatened cetaceans in the world.

The two petitions — one filed by a consortium of NGOs, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), and the other by the NGO Oceana — asked the U.S. government to provide emergency protection for North Atlantic whales (Eubalaena glacialis). They called for three measures aimed to reduce vessel collision, a leading cause of death for these animals. The proposed rules included establishing speed limits for ships in designated coastal zones between North Carolina and Florida during the calving season; requiring speed reductions outside of these zones when a single whale or a mother-and-calf pair is spotted; and making such rules applicable for vessels 35 feet (about 11 meters) in length and longer.

There are already some seasonal speed zones on the southeast U.S. coast, but experts say they’re not big enough to encompass the species’ entire range, especially as climate change alters the whales’ movements. Additionally, vessels don’t need to slow down outside these zones unless in the presence of three individual whales, and the current rules only apply to vessels larger than 65 feet, or about 20 meters. However, as experts point out, smaller vessels have been responsible for right whale deaths, as seen in a collision between a 54-foot (16.5-m) sportfishing yacht and a calf and mother off St. Augustine, Florida, in February 2021. The calf’s dead body washed onto the beach the next day, and the mother, known to researchers as Infinity, hasn’t been seen again.

The petitioners say the proposed emergency protective measures were aimed at protecting pregnant whales, lactating mothers and calves, since they tend to spend more time at the water’s surface between November and April. They also argue that safeguarding every individual right whale is critical for the species’ future survival.

“We know that protecting all adults, juveniles and calves is essential to helping this species recover,” Gib Brogan, Oceana’s fisheries campaign manager and signee of the group’s petition, told Mongabay. “And we are at that critical point for the species that we need to do everything to help them come back.”

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