On December 29th, 2022, President Biden signed the omnibus appropriations bill.
As a result of public opposition, the final language was modified and shortened the delay from ten years to six years. It also included similar language used in the proposed Right Whale Co-Existence Act of 2022 to provide grant funding in support of projects “with a substantial likelihood of reducing lethal and sub-lethal effects on North Atlantic right whales from fishing gear entanglements or vessel collisions,” the bulk of the allocated funding is authorized, not appropriated. This means that Congress can approve the funding but has no obligation to actually make it available.
On behalf of the conservation and researcher caucus of the ALWTRT, WDC reached out to NMFS to request clarifications on next steps and a timeline for action. Janet Coit , the assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries responded indicating that NMFS intends to move forward with additional measures to reduce entanglements over the next several years. In addition, the Agency is working to expand the use of on-demand fishing gear as well as other gear modifications.
“WDC is not supportive of delaying efforts to protect right whales but is supportive of the potential influx of funds that can advance new gear technologies to reduce risk to right whales without devastating fishing communities” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Executive Director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation - North America. “This is not the time to give up, we have at least 10 new right whales calves counting on us this year and we can’t let them down.”
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
In mid-December, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) proposed a rider to the omnibus appropriations bill which would delay further protections to critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. The omnibus appropriations bill funds federal agencies and needs to pass to avoid a government shutdown.
Collins’ original proposal would have delayed any further requirements to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from accidental entanglements in US fishing gear for 10 years. This timeframe is far beyond what the species can tolerate to avoid extinction and is in direct conflictwith a recent US court order that mandated further risk reductions must be in place within two years.
In response to the pending new rule, Senator Collins’ proposed the rider to delay further risk reductions. Collins strategically proposed the language at the last minute knowing the omnibus appropriations bill must pass to avoid a government shutdown and there is a no debate provision, meaning members of congress must vote for everything included or none of it.
WDC joined 73 US NGOs as well as members of the Atlantic Scientific Review Group in strong opposition to the proposed rider. In addition, more than 900 WDC supporters immediately responded by reaching out to their elected officials to express their concerns.
BACKGROUND ON SOLUTIONS TO ENTANGLEMENTS IN FISHING GEAR:
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has determined that right whale recovery is only possible if the risk of whales being seriously harmed or killed in US fishing gear is reduced by 90%. However, consistent government delays to further reduce risk prompted several conservation organizations to challenge NMFS’ lack of action in court.
Last July, a US District Court judge ruled that NMFS did violate federal law by not adequately protecting right whales and mandated that further risk reduction measures be put in place no later than December 2024.
In response, NMFS convened its Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (ALWTRT) to develop a comprehensive plan to further reduce serious harm and lethal entanglements in 14 US fisheries including those which fish for lobster and Jonah crab.
Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) is a federally appointed member of the ALWTRT which includes representatives of federal and state agencies, the fishing industry, conservation organizations, and scientific groups whose research has provided evidence that entanglements are a leading cause of injury and mortality to the species. In early December 2022, the ALWTRT provided a suite of recommendations to NMFS to consider. A new proposed rule was expected to be released in the coming year.
“We should have spent this weekend celebrating the news of four more right whale calves born” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, Executive Director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation-North America. “Instead we were fighting a death warrant for the species.”
The original proposed rider was not only a death warrant for right whales, it also set a dangerous precedent for other imperiled species.
“The state of Maine does not get to make a decision for the entire country, and the world, as to whether this iconic species survives.” said Asmutis-Silvia. “Those who enabled this rider to be added to the omnibus package may have dug the grave for right whales, but we hope our collective efforts prevented the bodies from being buried as we will continue to fight for their survival and recovery.”
WDC WORKS TO SAVE NORTH ATLANTIC RIGHT WHALES:
Fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales remain with fewer than 70 breeding females in the population. The single biggest threats to the species are from accidental entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes.
WDC has been working with its partners from Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), International Fund for Animal Welfare, NOAAs Northeast Fisheries Science Center and commercial fishermen to pilot modified fishing gear which would allow lucrative and culturally important fishing communities to thrive while all but eliminating entanglement risk to right whales.
In addition, WDC, Conservation Law Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife petitioned NOAA to further protect right whales from vessel strikes by slowing vessels in areas when right whales are present.
Regina Asmutis-Silvia, [email protected], 508-451-3853