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Right Whales: A Love Story- The Right Way to Save the Right Whale

Changing policies to help protect North Atlantic right whales is not just something that is important to WDC; we have been collaborating and joining forces with other conservation organizations to make a real impact for this critically endangered species.  

This week’s Love Story episode comes from Sharon Young, the Marine Issues Field Director for the Human Society of the United States and speaks to the importance of working together and creating a village to save this critically endangered species.

Right whales need you to be a part of this village: SIGN the petition and make a donation in support if this vital work today!

The Right Way to Save the Right Whale

By Sharon Young

With less than 500 members left in the population, working toward the recovery of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales is a major priority for The Humane Society of the United States (The HSUS) for which I work as marine issues field director.  Originally decimated by commercial whaling, right whales struggle to recover as they navigate the urbanized U.S. east coast from nursery areas in the southeast to feeding areas in the northeast and Canada. They live seasonally in, or travel through, areas of the ocean that are a maze of shipping lanes, high value commercial fishing areas and plumes of runoff from urban centers that may contain toxins. The U.S. Navy uses high intensity sonar in its exercises. Oil and gas development and offshore windfarms are proposed in their habitat.  Three times as many right whales are found dead each year than the U.S. government says is the maximum that can be killed without jeopardizing recovery—and that is just the bodies we find. Only a handful of calves are born to the population each year. This is a high risk situation.

So how do you save right whales?  Populations can grow if you boost the birth rate (including assuring that newborns survive to reproduce), reduce the death rate and protect their habitat. But these are not things that any one person or organization can do alone.  To borrow part of a popular saying “it takes a village.”   That village contains scientists, conservation and animal protection advocates, elected officials, government managers and lawyers.

Science helps us know where they are, what they do and the life histories of the animals so we can track threats and recovery. Advocates in universities and non-profit organizations such as The HSUS and WDC can use that information to advocate for strategies to better protect right whales from threats that they face from shipping, fishery-related entanglements and degradation of their habitat. Elected officials are important to assuring adequate funding for conservation and for keeping strong the laws that protect marine mammals. Government managers, charged with implementing the laws and regulations that protect whales and their environments, have to balance demands for protection of whales with calls for minimal restrictions on economic activities. And lawyers help by filing litigation when the government does not appear to be fulfilling its legal obligations to protect marine mammals—especially those such as right whales that are critically endangered.

Speaking as someone from the advocacy community—to be effective, we ourselves need to form a village. Many of our groups, such as WDC, also undertake or help fund, research to inform our understanding of the conservation needs of right whales. We try to educate the public—especially our members—on what is happening to (or for) these whales about whom we all care.  Hearing loud and clear that the public wants stronger protections can encourage elected officials and government managers to stand up to economic interest groups. Our community also works to educate and influence elected officials whose actions can tip the balance of survival as they address requests to amend protective legislation or longstanding regulations.  We serve on federal advisory panels to recommend additional measures to protect right whales from the adverse impacts from shipping or fishing within their habitat. And, when necessary, we have successfully sued the government to force compliance with the mandates of protective legislation such at the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act.  We have also worked together to file petitions for better habitat protection and then sued to insure that the area protected matched the scientific findings about which areas are habitat critical to the survival of right whales.  The just-released proposal to expand right whale critical habitat—that would protect over 30,000 square miles of ocean habitat—is a direct result of both a legal petition and a lawsuit filed jointly by conservation groups.  This proposed expansion is open for public comment and we will need the “village” of our members to make sure that the largest possible area is protected.

 Different conservation and animal protection groups have different expertise and different networks established. We join our efforts in service of a single cause: protecting a critically endangered species that still teeters on the brink of extinction. 

 Sharon Young is a former marine mammal researcher and now serves as the Marine Issues Field Director for the Humane Society of the U.S. She specializes in marine mammal conservation and policy and serves as an appointed representative to the Southeast right whale recovery team as well as on a task force focused on reducing mortality of large whales in commercial fishing gear (Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team).

WDC is grateful to our guest bloggers and value their contributions to whale conservation. The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of, and should not be attributed to, WDC.