Today, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Right Whale Coexistence Act of 2022, which seeks to reduce human impacts on critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Representative Seth Moulton (D-MA) will introduce a companion bill in the House this Friday.
“We are incredibly grateful to Senator Booker, Representative Moulton and all co-sponsors for this bold initiative to combat the right whale’s dire predicament,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Human activities have killed over 200 right whales in the past twelve years alone. This new bill represents a major opportunity for the federal government to accelerate research on solutions to slow—and actually reverse—the species’ rapid decline towards extinction.”
If passed, the Right Whale Coexistence Act of 2022 (RWCA) would provide additional resources for vitally needed technological innovation to arrest the species’ precipitous decline over the past decade. Defenders of Wildlife previously urged Congress to pass the bill’s predecessor, the Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered (SAVE) Right Whales Act, introduced in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
In addition, RWCA would create a new grant program at the Department of Commerce focused on research projects to develop innovative technologies to reduce human impacts on the right whale, authorizing $15 million in funding annually over the next decade. The grants would prioritize projects with the highest likelihood of reducing the impacts of fishing gear entanglements and vessel collisions—currently responsible for all adult right whale deaths with an identified cause. It would also prioritize projects that involve private sector stakeholders and have the potential to benefit small businesses in the U.S.
Centuries of overexploitation by the whaling industry pushed the North Atlantic right whale to near extinction in the early 20th century. While the end of whaling in the 1930s kept the species from vanishing forever, and the legal protections of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973 enabled a gradual recovery to nearly 500 animals, the right whale has again been in decline since at least 2010.
In 2017, NOAA Fisheries declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) after 17 dead right whales were found in one year. Although NOAA Fisheries has determined that human activities cannot kill more than one right whale each year for the species to recover, 50 right whales have been observed killed or mortally injured since then in U.S. and Canadian waters. Unfortunately, the actual death toll is likely much higher, as scientists believe only around a third of right whale deaths have been documented since 2010. The most recent population estimate in January 2020 suggests that fewer than 340 right whales remain.
In addition to killing and maiming right whales, fishing gear entanglements continue to have serious effects on birth rates. Non-fatal entanglements make it harder for female whales to build up the necessary blubber to calve and nurse their babies. As a result, calving intervals have stretched from the typical 3-4 years to 7-10 years. With only 42 calves born since 2017, the species is not reproducing quickly enough to stave off extinction. Not even these calves are safe, as illustrated by vessel strikes that severely injured a calf off the coast of Savannah in 2020, and killed calves off the coasts of New Jersey in 2020 and Florida in 2021. Vessel strikes also pose increased risks to right whale mothers.
There have been some positive developments recently. During the 2020-2021 calving season, 20 right whales were born—the most since 2013—and another 14 have been born so far during the 2021-2022 season. However, these numbers remain far below the approximately 50 or more calves per year that would be necessary to stop the decline, an impossible goal as only around 70 reproductive females survive. The only way to save the right whale from extinction is to reduce human-caused mortalities.