Right Whale, © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock

Doing Right By Right Whales

Sierra Weaver, Senior Staff Attorney

Sierra Weaver on whale watching boat

Sierra on a whale watching boat (Credit: Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society)

One of my favorite work trips every year is to the annual meeting of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The fewer than 500 remaining North Atlantic right whales live almost exclusively in the coastal waters off the Eastern U.S. and Canada, and this annual meeting brings together the scientists, government officials and conservationists working to bring these highly endangered animals back from the brink of extinction. Defenders of Wildlife has long been a forerunner in the fight to address the leading threats to this species.

As I do every year, in November I presented to the Consortium on the efforts of Defenders and our conservation partners to ensure that right whales and the busy waters of the Eastern Seaboard that they call home are protected from increasing industrialization. There’s a lot happening right now on these fronts, so it was great to communicate to the scientists how their research is being used for right whale conservation, and the upcoming opportunities for them — and you — to weigh in on what’s needed to protect right whales.

Some things to watch for:

Speed Limits for Ships
Ship strikes are the leading cause of death for North Atlantic right whales. In 2008, following years of pressure from Defenders and our partners, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) imposed the first-ever speed limits for large ships on the East Coast. These requirements give crew members more time to stop and avoid whales, and for whales to move out of their path. But the speed restrictions we fought so hard for will expire in December, 2013 unless the governments acts to extend them. Defenders and our partners petitioned NMFS in June to do just that, as well as to expand the restrictions to other times and places that right whales need protection. Making sure these rules stay in place and are as effective as possible is vital to right whale survival and recovery.

Right whale and calf, photo courtesy NOAA

A right whale and her calf

Fishing Gear Entanglement
NMFS is scheduled to release a proposed rule and draft environmental impact statement in early- to mid-2013 on new measures to prevent right whales from being entangled in fishing gear. Entanglement can lead to the long and painful death of large whales as fishing lines cut into their blubber and limit their ability to feed and swim. I’m a member of the team advising NMFS on the entanglement problem, and am pushing strongly for the agency to take prompt action to protect right whales and other endangered species from this serious threat.

Critical Habitat
We’re also urging NMFS to move forward with proposed changes to the critical habitat for the North Atlantic right whale. Defenders and our partners petitioned NMFS for expanded critical habitat back in 2009, calling for expanded protection of right whale breeding, calving and feeding grounds, and for the designation of their migratory corridor as critical habitat for the first time. When they failed to act on our petition, we took legal action, and NMFS promised a proposal before the end of 2011. We’re still waiting, but will continue our efforts to shake loose this important conservation measure.

North Atlantic right whales have a long road to recovery, and threats to the survival of the species abound. With your help, Defenders of Wildlife is continuing the fight to make our oceans a safer place for whales.