Letter to the Editor

On the Right Whales

Dear Editor:

We appreciate that your June 21 editorial “Another Sad Sign of the Times” calls attention to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales but it made several misleading claims about their fight for survival and the current protections in place.

The most immediate threats to right whales are entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes. Neither the U.S. nor Canada is doing enough to protect right whales from the maze of thick ropes and the dearth of commercial shipping vessels they are forced to navigate in their annual migrations. Although long protected in the U.S. under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it has been several years since any new laws designed to protect right whales have been put in place in the United States. 

Your article suggests that the U.S. has fully protected right whales in the Gulf of Maine, however, the reality is starkly different. 

For example, more than 70 percent of Maine waters — where most of the fishing in the Gulf of Maine occurs — are exempt from federal regulations to protect right whales from entanglements. These exemptions include requirements to mark fishing gear so that problematic gear can be identified (and ideally removed), and to use sinking lines between traps to decrease the risk of entanglement. Further, any most speed restrictions in the Gulf of Maine, when implemented after a group of whales are sighted, are merely voluntary. Thus, they are largely ignored.  

Just this year, six more whales died out of a population of barely 400. At least two of these whales were mature females capable of bearing calves. This is catastrophic, and both countries need to treat this like the emergency that it is for a species at risk of extinction. Since 2017, Canada has moved quickly to close areas to fishing as soon as whales were spotted and to implement mandatory speed restrictions in certain areas. However, even these measures were not enough to prevent the last six deaths. Here at home, right whales are increasingly present south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket for much of the year, yet the U.S. has not created a new closure in this hotspot with fishing and mandatory speed restrictions to decrease risk. 

Long term solutions will require both countries to increase their monitoring so that mandatory speed restrictions can be put in place as soon as whales are sighted.  Innovative new technology such as ropeless fishing also holds great promise because it eliminates dangerous lines from the water altogether and would allow fishermen to fish whenever and wherever they want.  

Right whales can recover, but humans need to stop killing them first.

Jake O’Neill

Conservation Law Foundation

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