US criticized for doing too little to save North Atlantic right whales

Only head of whale is seen above water with a green rope
A North Atlantic right whale with a green fishing line deeply embedded in his upper jaw, source: Reuters/Marguerita Choy

Conservation groups criticized the commercial fishing restrictions plans from the US government for not being strong enough to save the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

There are only an estimated 360 North Atlantic right whales remaining in the world. Collisions with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear used to catch crab and fish are the two leading causes of injury and death for North Atlantic right whales.

Once, there were 21,000 North Atlantic right whales, but they were hunted close to extinction in the early 20th century, with only around 100 remaining by the 1920s.

Whaling North Atlantic right whales was banned in 1935, leading their numbers to bounce back to as many as 483, but the progress has since been reversed with only 360 remaining. An estimated twenty are killed each year in US and Canadian waters.

Weak ropes
President Joe Biden’s administration announced on Tuesday that under the new rules, lobster and crab fishers need to attach more traps to a rope line, so fewer rope lines are in the water.

The rope lines, attached to buoys, will also have to be weakened so that whales that become entangled are more likely to break free.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ((NOAA) official Michael Pentony, the new measures will allow fisheries to “continue to thrive, while significantly reducing the risk to critically endangered right whales.”

But Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager at the ocean conservation organization Oceana, told AFP that the use of weak ropes was a “largely theoretical strategy” that hasn’t been tested enough to know for sure if it will work.

“Even if everything works as designed, it still puts stress on an endangered species and stress from all varieties has been shown to reduce the size of right whales and decrease their reproduction,” Brogan told AFP.

Oceana had suggested following Canada’s example by having longer seasonal restrictions covering a greater area and no fishing in areas whereNorth Atlantic right whales are spotted.

Cottontail died
According to Oceana, about a quarter of North Atlantic right whales are entangled each year, and about 83% of all North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once in their life.

The ropes can be seen wrapped around their mouths, fins, tails and bodies. At times the lines cut into their flesh, causing life-threatening infections, or even severing fins and tails and cutting into the bone.

In March of this year, the 11-year-old male North Atlantic right whale named Cottontail died off the coast of South Carolina after being entangled in fishing gear for months.

Brogan said Oceana was particularly disappointed that the government had followed measures first proposed by the administration of former President Donald Trump, which more than 200,000 people had opposed during public comments.

The regulations were developed by the “Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction” group, with most members coming from the fishing industry.

“We can’t save this rapidly declining whale population from extinction with half-measures like this,” Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

“This plan is better than nothing and a step in the right direction. But we’ve already waited far too long to protect North Atlantic right whales from deadly entanglements,” she added.

“It’s time to get all vertical fishing lines out of important right whale habitat immediately and convert to on-demand ropeless fishing gear.”

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