Today, the U.S. Senate released its fiscal year 2021 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill, increasing funding for monitoring and protecting the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale by $2 million over FY 2020 levels. The additional funds will also help develop and test new anti-entanglement fishing gear technologies. The funding levels are similar to those adopted in the House’s companion CJS bill. The House and Senate now must work to reach agreement over the final appropriations bill levels and language.
Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, issued the following statement:
“We are grateful the U.S. Congress has united in trying to stop the North Atlantic right whale’s dire situation from deteriorating further. With what we know now, the right whale’s status is so critical that even more funding is needed to invest in developing technologies to save the species from fishing gear entanglements. However, this year’s additional funding alone will not save the right whale from the existential threats of entanglements and vessel strikes. We urge Congress to pass the SAVE Right Whales Act, to authorize $5 million a year for 10 years to invest in stakeholder efforts to develop innovative technologies to turn the tide for right whales.”
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered large whale species. Only around 350 survive today, with an estimate of just 70 females of breeding age. Once hunted by generations of European and New England whalers, the North Atlantic right whale continues to face human-caused dangers along Canada and the United States’ eastern seaboard. Since 2017, there have been 43 confirmed right whale deaths and serious injuries (i.e., live whales with injuries likely to cause death) due to entanglements with commercial fishing gear and vessel strikes. Because of the difficulty of detecting dead or seriously injured whales, the actual numbers of serious injuries and mortalities are significantly higher.
The threats are omnipresent—one study found 85% of right whales bear scars from past entanglements. Even when entanglements are not fatal, they often maim whales or prevent them from building adequate fat stores, limiting females’ ability to birth desperately-needed calves. Females and calves are also uniquely vulnerable to vessel strikes. Out of 10 right whale calves born in the 2019-20 calving season, two have already been killed by vessel strikes and one of the two mothers has not been resighted since.
In July 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the status of the right whale from “endangered” to “critically endangered” on its Red List of Endangered Species, only one step away from “extinct in the wild.”