A bill that would open up $5 million in annual grants to protect North Atlantic right whales received approval Wednesday in the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. The legislation comes at a time in which a federal agency ordered sweeping changes in how New England fishers go about their business.
House Resolution 1568 — whose lead sponsor, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., is one of nearly two dozen people running for the Democratic nomination for president — provides $5 million per year from 2019 to 2029 that would go to relevant state and tribal agencies, research institutions and nonprofits with expertise required in right whale conservation.
Others who could apply for grants include disentanglement teams approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “sectors of the shipping and fishing industries, fishing gear manufacturers and rope manufacturers.”
The bill is titled — in the manner Congress uses acronyms — the Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales Act of 2019, or the SAVE Right Whales Act.
U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., presented the bill and said it’s been endorsed by the Massachusetts Lobster Association and the Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance. It’s also backed by Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Humane Society of the United States, among others.
“The SAVE Right Whales Act would authorize financial resources for research and to develop and test innovative technologies to reduce entanglements and ship strikes,” Huffman said. “It would also direct NOAA to conduct a survey and map food sources in the Atlantic Ocean, which would valuable insight into the needs of right whales. Lastly, before we vote on this bill, I would like to address a misconception we’ve heard from our colleagues on the other side.
“It is true the Trump administration intends to allow seismic testing in the Atlantic that will further harm the North Atlantic right whale, and that science shows this testing will be harmful to right whales. It should not be allowed, but this bill has nothing to do with that. This bill doesn’t address or even mention seismic testing — it is solely about developing tools to reduce gear entanglement and ship strikes.”
U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., spoke for the Republican minority against the legislation.
“The Subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife did hold a hearing on this issue on the North Atlantic right whale back in March, and what we also learned was that the right whale was hunted nearly to extinction through the late 19th Century, and that the North Atlantic population’s so small that it lacks a sufficient genetic pool to produce a growing population,” McClintock said. “We’ve heard shipping, other commercial activity, seismic testing blamed, but the fact is that other whale populations in the North Atlantic have been growing at a very healthy rate.”
He cited numbers from the International Whaling Commission showing growth with blue whales, humpbacks, fin whales, and right whales that are in the South Atlantic and Pacific.
“I had feared the outcome of that hearing would be an attempt to ban oil and gas exploration in the North Atlantic,” McClintock said. “I noted at the hearing that most whale species are recovering in the Northern Hemisphere, and the right whale population’s making a strong recovery in the Southern Hemisphere, all under current conditions.
The vote was 23-13 to send H.R. 1568 to the full House, entirely along party lines. U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-10 — the only Georgian on the committee — did not cast a vote. Joe Cunningham, the Democratic representative for South Carolina’s 1st District, voted in favor, as did Darren Soto, the Democratic representative for Florida’s 9th District. The other Floridian on the committee, Republican Daniel Webster of the 11th District, voted no.
Friday, NOAA’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team agreed to significant reductions in vertical trap lines, which run from traps on the ocean floor to surface buoys. Over the next three years, there’s to be a 50 percent reduction in Maine, 30 percent in Massachusetts and 18 percent in Rhode Island.