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Will Trump and Trudeau oversee the extinction of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales?

UPDATE: The tragedy continues into 2018.  An 18th DEAD RIGHT WHALE WAS REPORTED ON JANUARY 25TH, 2018 IN VIRGINIA. A 17th dead right whale was discovered on Nantucket Island on November 28, 2017 more than a month after the carcass of a 16th right whale was reported  on Cape Cod, MA on October 23, 2017 . 

The unprecedented loss of at least 18 endangered North Atlantic right whales since April is cause for alarm as these deaths comprise over 4% of the entire species of which only an estimated 458 remain.  In human terms, a similar loss would mean the deaths of more than 304 million people in a matter of weeks – that would be approximately 94% of the entire US population.

Most frightening is that 12 of these whales died in a three month period in Atlantic Canada, a newly emerging summer habitat for NA right whales where no substantive management measures to protect these whales currently exist.  While not all carcasses have been examined, those that were point to human caused threats, specifically entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes. 

The Canadian Crisis

During the first week of June, Canada’s Marine Animal Response Society received a report of a dead right whale in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada.  The search for that whale led to finding several more floating carcasses. By the end of June, seven dead right whales had been identified in the area with two additional deaths documented in July, another dead right whale reported on August 1st, and the latest carcass discovered on September 15th .    

In total, seven whales were necropsied (animal autopsy) to determine the cause of their deaths.  Four of the whales had injuries consistent with “blunt force trauma” (ship strikes), two whales died as a result of a entanglements in fishing gear and necropsy results remain pending on the final necropsy. 

At the same time, at least five additional right whales were reported entangled in fishing gear in the area, including a whale whose disentanglement resulted in the tragic death of Joe Howlett, a trained member of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team.  The unspeakable loss of a trained rescuer resulted in Canada suspending all disentanglement efforts pending a full investigation.  As the investigation continues, a fifth entangled right whale found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on August 28th remains in gear and its fate unknown.  

While Canada has implemented management measures to protect this species, including the designation of critical habitat and modifications of shipping lanes, these efforts have been focused in the Bay of Fundy (blue circle), an historic habitat for right whales. However, there are no comparable measures in place in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (yellow circle), an emerging Canadian habitat for this species.  While Canada did institute a ship speed restriction in a portion of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in respone to the growing number of dead right whales, it did not do so until August 11th and has indicated this measure will only be in place temporarily.  Furthermore, unlike the United States, Canada has not required modifications or restrictions on fishing gear to reduce the risk of entanglement to right whales. 

In recent years, right whales have shifted their habitats, likely due to changing ocean temperatures which affect copepods, the preferred prey for right whales.  Along with a number of other cold water species, these tiny zooplankton have been shifting further north as the waters warm in the Gulf of Maine. 

Economics versus Conservation in a Changing Climate

Catastrophically, copepods and right whales have found a new summer home in a place designated as management Area 12, an area with a large fishery for Canadian snow crabs in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence.  Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) did close the snow crab fishery in Area 12 in response to right whale deaths and entanglements, but it only did so after the confirmed death of an  8th right whale and, as mentioned previously, the tragic death of a disentanglement team member.  Furthermore, the Area 12 fishery was already slated to end its season by July 28th according to DFO and reportedly had already caught 98% of its quota, leaving one to question whether there was any real conservation benefit to whales from the early closure. 

According to research published in 2009, “the snow crab fishery in Atlantic Canada represents the world’s largest snow crab fishery; it accounted for almost 90% of world landings” and is valued at $177 million.  In 2012 the Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab trap fishery was certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) despite numerous concerns raised by WDC, the Humane Society of the United States, and other conservation groups regarding the plight of North Atlantic right whales and the risk posed by fisheries to the species’ continued survival.

As corporations like Whole Foods and Walmart move toward offering customers “sustainable” seafood and choose to sell seafood certified by MSC, it is increasingly important for consumers to question not only whether catching the target seafood species is sustainable, but also what bycatch occurs in that fishery (i.e. what other animals does that fishery kill by mistake?).  In this case, a certified “sustainable” fishery may be contributing to the extinction of an endangered species. 

Yet, as the body count in Canada mounts, it is unclear what meaningful actions Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Administration intend to implement for long term risk reduction.  As Canada continues to review its options, will it eventually review how its inactions lead toward the extinction of North Atlantic right whales?

Blame Canada?  Not so fast—the US adds nails to the right whale extinction coffin.

On August 25th, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with implementing both the Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Acts, declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) as a result of the unusually high number of deaths in an unusual place (Gulf of St. Lawrence) at an unsual time (summer).  The UME declaration, itself, will not directly add protections for right whales.  UME declarations allow for additional investigations into why unusual die-offs of whales and dolphins occur.  In this UME, a further investigation will not call into question the findings of ship strike and entanglement already attributed to those that were examined nor does it change the need for additional protections to be implemented in Canadian waters and the need to maintain protections in US waters.  Currently, the UME will focus its investigation on the 12 right whales found dead since June and will result in a formal report once the investigation is completed months from now. 

While the US can take some comfort in its efforts to reduce ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear, it may not sit smugly by and blame the demise of a species solely on Canada.  The actions and inactions by the US are no less lethal than what is happening in Canada as a flood of proposals by the Trump Administration and Congress propose to reduce protections to North Atlantic right whales in US waters.

Only six months ago, the US Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management (at that time operating under the Obama administration), denied six pending permit applications by oil companies for seismic testing along the US East Coast. The intense pulsing sounds created by seismic surveys are emitted every 10 seconds, 24 hours a day for weeks or months at a time and pose a risk to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Research shows that man-made noise increases stress hormones in right whales, which can impact their ability to reproduce and impair their immune systems. However, the Trump Administration is seeking to overturn that ban on potentially lethal levels of seismic noise in whale habitat, proposing to approve five permits to use this intense noise source to search for deposits of oil and gas under the ocean floor. These permits put whales and dolphins at risk from the intense noise and—if development proceeds—from future oil spills.

Similarly, the request by the Trump Administration to review the need for 11 currently designated National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments on both coasts appears to be motivated by fossil fuel interests that wish access to these protected offshore areas.  The areas vulnerable to reconsideration of protections include the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts, the only Marine Monument designated in the Gulf of Maine and a habitat used by North Atlantic right whales and other endangered marine species. 

Adding to the potential impacts of these requests, the Trump Administration and Congress have launched multiple attacks on both the Endangered Species (ESA) and Marine Mammal Protection (MMPA) Acts.  Using misleading titles which seem harmless, the US  House of Representatives’ Committee on Natural Resources recently held hearings on the “Endangered Species Litigation Reasonable Act” and on “Saving America’s Endangered Species Act” both of which are actually aimed at weakening protections of the ESA.  Another proposed bill with a misleading title is the “Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act” which is, in reality, an attempt to amend and weaken the MMPA by allowing up to 1,000 sea lions to be shot for eating fish. 

And let us not forget the decision by President Trump to pull out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, particularly poignant given that the increased risk to right whales in Canadian waters appears to be a direct result of their shifted habitat use in response to warming oceans due to climate change. 

Why Should We Care?

In the simplest terms, humans need whales.  Whales play a role in helping to create a healthy ocean ecosystem on which we rely to breathe, to eat, and to fight climate change. Emerging research underscores the critical role North Atlantic right whales play in the ecosystem by providing key nutrients for phytoplankton, which in turn produce most of the world’s oxygen and are the base on which fish stocks depend. Data supporting the direct link between healthy whale populations in the fight against climate change continue to grow.  Researchers have found the role of whales so significant that they concluded that the “full recovery from one serious anthropogenic impact on marine ecosystems, namely the dramatic depletion of whale populations, can help to counter the impacts of another now underway—the decline in nutrients for phytoplankton growth caused by ocean warming.”

In simpler terms, allowing whale populations to recover can help fight climate change.

What WDC is Doing

On October 2nd, WDC and its conservation and animal-protection partners sought action by the United States and Canada to prevent painful, deadly entanglements in fishing gear that threaten the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. In letters to Canadian officials and the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, the groups demanded action to reduce risks to these imperiled whales. 

Since its incorporation in 2005, WDC’s North American office has implemented a program specifically dedicated to the continued survival of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, a project which the Patagonia Outdoor Clothing and Gear company has helped to support since 2010. Because of the scientific and policy expertise of the staff of WDC-NA, we are able to provide input to legal counsel who help us ensure compliance with federal laws, and to federal managers we have advised on issues specific to reducing ship strikes, entanglements, and habitat degradation.

As a federally appointed member of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team, WDC is continuing its work to devise measures that reduce the risk of entanglements.  We will continue to conduct evaluations of necropsy and stranding data, perform annual reviews of NOAA’s draft Stock Assessment Reports, and provide data on adverse human interactions to the Atlantic Scientific Review Group, ensuring that impacts to the species are adequately assessed and their impacts fully considered.

We also work as part of a coalition of conservation and animal welfare groups fighting to ensure the integrity of US legislation:

  • Working to preserve the MMPA and ESA.
  • Working to ensure that federal budgets for right whale surveys, entanglement response and stranding response are not gutted by self-interested parties.
  • Opposing unrestrained seismic testing along the US East Coast.
  • Opposing federal permits which would allow harmful activities in right whale habitat.
  • Responding to all Federal Register notices on issues that may impact right whales and other species.

And in response to the recent deaths of right whales in Canada, we have formally requested that the MSC certification of the snow crab fishery be withdrawn as a result of its threat to the continued survival of right whales.  Where whales need protection, be assured that WDC will be there to fight for them!

What you can do

Support our work.  Your donation, large or small, has an impact. Not only does your donation provide critical funding to support our work, but it is through your donation that we can count you among our supporters as we ask federal officials to protect whales on your behalf.  

Use your words.  Tell the US Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management that you oppose seismic testing along the US East Coast.  Let them know that the noise generated by seismic testing can impact the recovery of right whales by reducing their ability to reproduce and lowering their immune system.  (NOTE: comments must be submitted by August 17th).

Say No to Canadian snow crab until Canada implements regulatory measures that adequately reduce the risk of entanglement to North Atlantic right whales.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Refuse. The very real issue of a changing climate is putting right whales at risk as they move to new habitats where protective regulations do not exist.  Your simple efforts to reduce/reuse/recycle/refuse plastics and conserve your energy consumption is a simple and effective way to make a difference. 

Including the right whale killed by a ship strike in Cape Cod this past April and two additional carcasses found off Massachusetts in August, we have now lost 17 right whales in a year where only five calves were born. Only 20 years ago, over 500 vaquitas (a species of porpoise) swam in the Gulf of California but today only 30 remain because of human impacts.  The fate of North Atlantic right whales over the next 20 years is in our hands and it is not too late to save them, but we need to act right now.

Updated November 28, 2017.