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Breaching North Atlantic right whale

WASHINGTON— Conservation groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service today for failing to respond to two rulemaking petitions to protect critically endangered right whales from being run over and killed by ships and boats in U.S. waters. The groups are calling for more speed limits to reduce the number of vessel strikes.

Just over half of known or suspected right whale deaths since 2017 have been attributed to vessel strikes, closely followed by entanglements in fishing gear. In just the past year, two of only 10 baby right whales born to the species were killed by vessel strikes off the coasts of Florida and New Jersey.

“Vessel collisions with whales are not intentional, but they can be harmful to the whale, damage the vessel, and injure passengers,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Executive Director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s North American office. “This is a problem with a tangible solution, on which the existence of an entire species and the safety of human lives depend.”

Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, Conservation Law Foundation and the Center for Biological Diversity filed the lawsuit in federal district court in Washington, D.C. The groups filed a legal petition in June 2012 and another in August 2020 following the second fatal right whale-vessel collision in six months.

Last January, the propellers of a passing vessel sliced through the head and mouth of a newborn right whale, leaving injuries so severe that streams of milk were seen pouring into the water as the injured calf desperately tried to nurse. It has not been seen again. In June, the six-month-old son of a right whale named Snow Cone was struck twice; the first injury caused serious and painful injuries, and the second blow killed him.

Derecha and calf copy

The agency has not responded to either petition. The petitions ask the Fisheries Service to expand the areas and times when its existing 10-knot speed-limit rule applies, to make all voluntary vessel-speed restrictions mandatory, and to apply the rule to small vessels (shorter than 65 feet) as well as large ones to avoid collisions that kill and injure right whales.

“We need to have slowdowns in right whale danger zones just like we have lower speed limits near schools,” said Jane Davenport, a senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Last year boat strikes killed a newborn and a six-month-old. Each of these tragic deaths robs the mother of her baby and the species of its future. It’s past time for the Fisheries Service to act on these common-sense speed limits.”

North Atlantic right whales are among the world’s most imperiled marine mammals, with only about 360 animals alive today. Thirty-two right whales have been found dead since 2017, and the Fisheries Service believes at least another 14 have died, or will die, from existing injuries. The agency estimates the actual number of deaths each year is likely much higher, since most dead whales sink.

“Roughly half of all right whale deaths are because they are run over and killed by speeding boats, and this unprecedented delay is only making matters worse,” said Erica Fuller, a senior attorney at Conservation Law Foundation. “It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to force regulators to make the common-sense decision to reduce vessel speeds in areas where right whales are present. The new administration must act quickly and avoid repeating the same mistakes of the Trump years.”

The existing speed rule applies only to vessels 65 feet and longer and sets seasonal speed limits off Massachusetts, the mid-Atlantic and the whale’s calving grounds in Georgia and Florida. It also establishes a voluntary, dynamic management system whereby vessel operators are asked, but not required, to slow to 10 knots or less when a group of three or more right whales is seen in an area.

“We can’t just sit by while right whales continue to get run over and killed by ships as the agency does nothing about it,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The clock is running out for right whales, and further delay is unacceptable. Slowing ships will speed up right whale recovery by avoiding deadly collisions where these whales feed and raise their young.”

The groups filed the lawsuit under the Administrative Procedure Act. The agency has 60 days to respond.

WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading international charity dedicated solely to the worldwide conservation and welfare of all whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come.

Conservation Law Foundation is a regional, nonprofit organization that protects New England’s environment for the benefit of all people. We use the law, science and the market to create solutions that preserve our natural resources, build healthy communities, and sustain a vibrant economy.

Regina Asmutis-Silvia

Whale and Dolphin Conservation, (508) 451-3853, regina@whales.org

Jake O’Neill

Conservation Law Foundation, (617) 850-1709, joneill@clf.org

Jake Bleich

Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3208, jbleich@defenders.org

Kristen Monsell

Center for Biological Diversity, (914) 806-3467, kmonsell@biologicaldiversity.org 

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