Biden Administration Declines To Take Action To Protect North Atlantic Right Whales Leaving Mothers & Calves Vulnerable To Boat Collisions 

Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service notified Oceana that the Biden administration rejected Oceana’s emergency petition calling for increased protections for critically endangered North Atlantic right whale mothers and calves in the U.S. Southeast region. 

Oceana’s December 6, 2022, petition demanded that, as the federal agency in charge of protecting North Atlantic right whales under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service should use its legal authority to put stronger safeguards in place to reduce the risk of boat strikes to North Atlantic right whales.

The Fisheries Service proposed nearly identical protections to those requested by Oceana in 2022 and the White House has published its intent to finalize these changes by June 2023. Oceana’s petition asked that the following protective measures be put in place immediately to protect the mothers and calves during this current calving season: 

• Modify Seasonal Speed Zones (“SSZs”) for the Atlantic, Great South Channel, North Carolina, South Carolina, and the Southeast region; 

• Implement a mandatory Dynamic Speed Zone (“DSZ”) “framework,” while enhancing and clarifying the DSZ trigger to include the presence of a mother-calf pair, instead of limiting the trigger to “three or more whales in close proximity;” 

• Expand the size and class of boats currently subject to speed restrictions to include most vessels greater than or equal to 35 feet in length 

 “Instead of doing what is necessary to protect North Atlantic right whales, the National Marine Fisheries Service is turning its back on this critically endangered species,” said Gib Brogan, campaign director for Oceana. “Their refusal to take immediate action continues the agency’s history of delays and leaves new mothers and calves in danger. These whales are particularly vulnerable to boat strikes because they spend their time at the water’s surface.”

“In just the last week, half a dozen right whale sightings have occurred outside of existing protection areas and none of the whales in the southeast region are protected from smaller boats that can and do kill right whales,” continued Brogan. “The government’s own assessment clearly shows that more needs to be done for this species to reduce the risk of whale mortality.”

As of January 20, 2023, 11 North Atlantic right whale mother-calf pairs have been sighted in the U.S. southeast region. The estimate for a relatively productive calving season would be 20 newborns. However, given the estimated rate of human-caused mortality and serious injury, 50 or more calves must be born per year to stop the decline and allow for the recovery of the species.

“We expect our leaders to make hard decisions to fix problems. By rejecting this request to quickly act on its own proposal, the Biden administration is assuming risk for this species. If and when a mother or calf are hit or killed before new regulations take effect, the National Marine Fisheries Service and its leader Assistant Administrator Janet Coit, should be held responsible. North Atlantic right whales cannot wait,” Brogan continued. 

Scientists estimate that less than one North Atlantic right whale per year can perish due to human causes in order for the species to have a chance at survival and recovery. Each whale’s death is the result of inadequate government regulations and sets the species’ recovery back more than a year. 

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