The first weekend in November, marked the 11th Annual Right Whale Festival. This festival celebrates the yearly return of female North Atlantic right whales to the warm, coastal waters of northeast Florida and Georgia, where they give birth and nurse their young. I was thrilled to represent Defenders of Wildlife at the festival, alongside longtime, committed wildlife activist and Defenders of Wildlife member Teresa Milton, educating and engaging festival attendees on the critical need to conserve this endangered species. It was an honor to share the tireless work being done by Defenders of Wildlife and our partners to protect North Atlantic right whales with community members and to celebrate the local congressman, Representative John H. Rutherford who has supported a very important right whale protection bill.
North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered large whale species, with only 400 individuals remaining, including approximately 95 breeding females. This whale species was hunted to near-extinction by the early 1900’s, as its tendency to swim slowly and close to shore and to float when dead rendered it the “right” whale to hunt — hence its name. The hunting of whales has been forbidden in the United States since 1931, when it ratified the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, yet this species remains in peril. Modern threats to North Atlantic right whales are virtually exclusively human in origin and include entanglement in fishing lines, ship strikes, and offshore oil and gas exploration. Entanglement is the greatest threat to the species, causing 85% of diagnosable right whale deaths; 83% of the population bears entanglement scars. Accordingly, engagement from industry, regulators, and the public are essential to saving these gravely imperiled whales.
This year’s Right Whale Festival was held with two major changes from previous years: first, it was held in Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island (approximately one hour from the former Jacksonville Beach location), and second, it spanned two days rather than the traditional one. It was a joy to work a festival in such a picturesque location and to enjoy the live music and other performances (such as puppet “parades” and costumed marine life) that came near the Defenders of Wildlife booth.
At our festival booth, Defenders of Wildlife provided educational materials about right whales and the other imperiled species that we work to protect, as well as a whale tail coloring activity for attendees young and young-at-heart. It was uplifting to see so many members of the public, especially children, express enthusiastic dedication to the conservation of right whales. Several students stated that they are currently or are planning to pursue degrees in marine biology and other relevant fields to protect marine species. When it comes to science-based advocacy, the more, the merrier!
One way that Defenders of Wildlife works to protect right whales is by promoting the Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered (SAVE) Right Whales Act, a bipartisan bill that would provide support for the conservation of right whales by requiring the Department of Commerce to provide financial assistance and surveys of plankton. On Saturday, following an introduction by Fernandina Beach Mayor Johnny Miller, Defenders of Wildlife and other coalition members presented an award to Representative John H. Rutherford, a Florida congressman (represented by his staff member, Momi Malspeis), in gratitude for his co-sponsoring the SAVE Right Whales Act. The presentation of Rep. Rutherford’s award praised his understanding of the need to protect right whales and his setting such a positive example to his colleagues across party lines in Congress. As of October 18, 2019, the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources recommended that the SAVE Right Whales Act pass and Defenders of Wildlife remains hopeful that this crucially important law will pass. We are urging all of our members and supporters to contact their senators and representatives and ask them to support the bill and the North Atlantic right whale.
The Right Whale Festival was a positive weekend in celebration of this iconic species. It was inspiring to witness such dedication to protecting these whales from the public and elected officials. It is my hope that the SAVE Right Whales Act will pass. Maybe by next year’s festival, we will be able to tell people that the North Atlantic right whale is protected and its population increasing.