NOAA Fisheries today denied an emergency petition that sought to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from being struck and killed by vessels in their calving grounds off the coast of the southeast United States. The species is down to about 70 reproductive females.
In November, conservation groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, filed an emergency rulemaking petition requesting a rule that mirrors a NOAA Fisheries proposal to set speed limits for vessels 35 feet long and greater and expand the areas where speed limits apply. The agency has yet to finalize that proposal, and the emergency rule would have helped prevent incidents like the 2021 boat collision that killed a right whale calf off Florida and likely fatally injured its mother.
“Right whales have journeyed to the Southeast since time immemorial to birth and nurse their calves in the safety of warm, shallow waters,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “But the calving grounds have become killing grounds. NOAA has dragged its feet on updating the vessel speed rule for over a decade; right whale mothers and calves have paid for this delay with their lives. The agency’s decision not to take emergency action to protect mothers and calves puts the species’ entire future at risk.”
As an explanation for today’s denial, NOAA Fisheries said it does not have the time and resources to effectively implement the emergency regulations. Agency officials assert that they are working with vessel operators to get voluntary slow-downs, but voluntary efforts have not proved effective.
“I’m outraged that the Biden administration won’t shield these incredibly endangered whales from lethal ship strikes,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is an extinction-level emergency. Every mother right whale and calf is critical to the survival of the species. Protecting right whales from vessel strikes is even more crucial after the Senate’s recent omnibus bill, which delayed efforts to curb right whale entanglements in lobster gear.”
Vessel strikes are one of two primary threats to the species’ existence, along with entanglements in commercial fishing gear. The Service’s current rule requires vessels 65 feet in length and greater to slow to 10 knots or less to protect right whales in certain areas at certain times. The agency has noted that a rule expansion is essential to preventing the whale’s extinction.
Today’s denial comes just weeks after Congress enacted a rider that gives the Service until 2028 to issue a new rule to reduce right whale entanglements in lobster gear, despite a court decision holding that its current regulations fail to comply with the law.
“In light of recent Congressional action, the whole world is watching how NOAA plans to save this species,” said Erica Fuller, senior attorney at Conservation Law Foundation. “We are disappointed that the government declined to take immediate action to protect these mothers and newborn calves, and instead chose to continue longstanding bureaucratic practices with a species that can’t afford a single death of another breeding female.”
Right whales begin giving birth to calves around mid-November, and the season lasts until mid-April. Their calving grounds are off the southeastern coast from Cape Fear, N.C., to below Cape Canaveral, Fla. Pregnant females and mothers with nursing calves are especially at risk of vessel strikes because they spend so much time near the water’s surface. Scientists know of no other calving grounds for the right whale.
“The road to a declining right whale population has been paved by the agency delaying or reducing needed actions,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “Denying our petition to take emergency action only increases the likelihood that even more drastic actions will be needed moving forward.”
Scientists at the New England Aquarium recently determined that only 340 North Atlantic right whales remain. The population has continued to decline from previous years, and right whales only give birth every 3 years to 10 years.