Advocates react, say omnibus condemns right whales to ‘unsustainable killing’
Image via Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

snow cone fwc right whale calf
The provision agreed to keep 2021 regulations in place for six years.

At a time when each North Atlantic right whale death is a step toward extinction, environmental groups are accusing Senate leaders of condemning the species to exactly that. This week, Maine lawmakers appear to have secured a six-year delay in court-mandated tougher regulations to save the whales as part of the $1.7 trillion omnibus legislation.

“The last-minute backroom deal that produced this bill will have devastating, irrevocable, extinction-level impacts on the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and continues to ignore the ever-worsening plight of the greater sage grouse,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.

Right whale protections were just part of a group of environmental proposals Democrats compromised on in negotiations.

It was the Defenders who sued, with other groups, to get the court order on tougher rules for the lobster and crab trap/pot fishery off New England, along with speed zones and new vessel speed restrictions.

North Atlantic right whales calve every year in the waters off Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. Survey teams spotted four calves so far this season. Experts say multiple seasons of 50-plus calves are needed to sustain the population.

“The anemic funding levels for endangered species conservation and recovery efforts will affect countless other imperiled species as well,” Rappaport Clark said. “This is a shameful outcome and political dealing at its absolute worst. 

“We are extremely disappointed that congressional leaders are willing to cut this deal based on bad science and bad policy at a time when species on the brink need help the most.”

The provision agreed to keeps the 2021 regulations in place for six years, and includes $40 million set aside for gear deployment and technology, like ropeless, on-demand traps and pots. Another $10 million would go toward grants to lower entanglement risk and vessel strikes.

Extensive time, effort and data show, by far, the biggest threat to the continued existence of North Atlantic right whales is fixed-gear lobster and crab traps in waters off New England and the Canadian Maritimes. These heavy ropes maim and lead to the death of these whales, of which there are around 340 or fewer, with fewer than 100 calving females.

Conservation Law Foundation senior attorney Erica Fuller told The Washington Post if this provision becomes law, there will be blood on the hands of Maine politicians.

“With the rate we’ve been killing right whales, extinction is expected to occur between the next 20 to 40 years,” Fuller said. “In the absence of the new rule, we’ve got more years of unsustainable killing going on.”

The New England Aquarium, deeply involved in whale conservation, also came out against the omnibus deal.

“Aggressive measures are needed to save the estimated 340 remaining individuals from extinction, and we cannot put any further regulations on hold,” read an Aquarium statement. “Decades of scientific research from New England Aquarium tells us humans are the primary cause of serious injuries and deaths to right whales, and it is more urgent than ever for Congress to enable solutions that can allow this magnificent species to survive while also supporting a strong marine fishing industry.” 

The Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out the availability of ropeless gear and that there is a path that works for both lobstermen and whales.

“Solutions are available, such as ropeless (or ‘on demand’) fishing gear, that virtually eliminate entanglements while keeping fishermen on the water,” said NRDC senior scientist Francine Kershaw. “This, however, is not the route the Maine delegation took.

“Instead, they designed a provision that freezes the status quo in place for six years, until the end of 2028. Over this time the fisheries will only have to abide by the terms of an illegal 2021 regulation that a federal court ruled was insufficient to reduce entanglement risk to sustainable levels.”

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook: facebook.com/wes.wolfe


One comment

  • cassandra of the swamp

    December 21, 2022 at 11:19 am

    People should be able to sue these selfish, entitled fishers for theft and destruction of OUR whales and OUR other natural resources. Kind of like if we stole and destroyed their boats, equipment, supplies…

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