Federal Judge Rules That National Marine Fisheries Service Failed To Protect Last 400 Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales From Lobster Trap Entanglements

A federal judge recently ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service’s management of the American lobster fishery violates the federal Endangered Species Act. The court held that the agency failed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and that its biological opinion on the fishery violated “straightforward” requirements of the Act, putting the whales at greater risk of entanglement.

“Right whales have been getting tangled up and killed in lobster gear for far too long,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This decision sends a clear signal that federal officials must protect these desperately endangered animals from more painful and deadly entanglements before it’s too late.”

The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Humane Society of the United States filed the lawsuit in 2018 against the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to prevent critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from becoming ensnared by lobster gear. The population is sadly down to only about 400 whales.

“This ruling could not be more timely,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife in a statement. “This year’s calving season ended with only 10 new right whale calves, a third of the number needed just to keep pace with deaths. Low calving rates are directly linked to the chronic stress of fishing gear entanglements. The way forward is clear — we have to redouble our efforts to develop innovative fishing technologies that will bring death rates down and push birth rates up.”

Scientists have found that entanglement is one of the leading causes of death for right whales, which have suffered a rapid and alarming die-off since overwhelming recovery efforts in 2017. 

Judge James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia held that the agency’s “biological opinion,” a document that finds that the fishery could kill or seriously injure more than three right whales per year, violated the law by omitting an “incidental take statement” that would set limits on allowable take and require measures to mitigate harmful impacts.

“This is a critical point in time for right whale conservation,” said Sharon Young, senior strategist on marine issues for the Humane Society of the United States. “We are glad that the court agrees the National Marine Fisheries Service needs to do more to protect right whales, which continue to decline.”

North Atlantic right whales are one of the world’s most imperiled mammals, with about 400 alive today. At least 30 right whales have died since 2017. Many of those deaths were caused by entanglements in fishing gear or collisions with ships. Even before these tragic deaths, scientists found that the population has been declining since 2010.

When whales get tangled in fishing gear, they can drown immediately or die over an extended time period from injuries, infections, or starvation. Entanglements can also sap whales of strength and decrease reproductive success. From 2010 to 2016, entanglement-related deaths accounted for 85% of right whale deaths for which the cause could be determined.

The court ordered the parties to submit a joint status report by April 16th regarding a briefing schedule for the remedy phase of the case.

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