Oceana hosted a Save the Whales Rally on Tuesday that aimed to support anyone hoping to speak up in favor of better protections for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The federal government is seeking stakeholder comments about ways to reduce the risks that fishing gear in oceans pose to the whales. During the rally, Oceana staff offered background information, advice and tools to provide input on how and why to better protect the species, which is currently in its calving season off the coast of Georgia and northern Florida.
“North Atlantic right whales come down to the offshore waters of Georgia, north Florida and sometimes even South Carolina — many of them every winter — to have their calves and then they travel in the spring back all the way up into the North Atlantic into the Northeastern U.S. and Canadian waters,” said Paulita Bennett-Martin, Oceana’s field representative for Georgia campaigns. “And so they really come down here for the winter as our return visitor to seek warmer water, safe water, to have their calves. It’s a really exciting time of the year for us that love these whales, as we count the calves that are born every year. And unfortunately sometimes we also count the losses as well.”
The upcoming comment period is a chance to help the whales get on a path of recovery, said Gib Brogan, a senior fisheries manager for Oceana.
“North Atlantic right whales are in rough shape right now,” he said. “They’re a critically endangered species. The most recent population estimate from the scientists who got together last fall indicate that there was just a few more than 360 left in the world, with fewer than 100 females. This puts them in the precarious situation.”
Scientists indicate that a recovery will require that less than one whale is killed a year, Brogan said. A reason for optimism is the 14 new calves that been spotted so far this winter.
“It’s still not enough to support the recovery, but it shows that these whales are healthy enough to support calves, which is a concern as we move forward,” Brogan said. “The scientists tell us that approximately 200 right whales have been killed in the last decade.”
These whales face two primary risks — vessels strikes and fishing gear entanglements. Reducing entanglements is the purpose of the upcoming comment period.
“Up and down the East Coast, millions of pieces of fishing gear go in the water every year,” Brogan said.
When whales encounter this gear, they’ll often twist in the water, becoming wrapped up in the lines.
“And these whales will often drag the gear for days and weeks and months, in some cases thousands of miles through the ocean, taking precious energy from these whales as they move through the water,” Brogan said. “And ultimately many of them will succumb. They’ll drown from this or they’ll have significant injuries to their bodies that will ultimately kill them.”
More than 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales show some evidence of an entanglement with fishing gear, he said.
“The U.S. federal government recognized that they needed to take action to minimize this risk, and a few years ago they started a process to develop new regulations to regulate these fishing gears and minimize this risk,” he said.
The government goes through a process of seeking stakeholder comments, and Brogan said anyone with any interest in promoting the survival of this species should be considered a stakeholder.
“For too long the federal government has used the narrow interpretation of stakeholder, and even in the proposal that’s out there right now the government has given a tremendous amount of weight to the views of the industries that are involved here and very little weight to the views of the people that are outside of the fishing industry,” he said.
Commenters need to urge for regulations that are effective and that create safe spaces for the whales in Atlantic waters, he said.
“Half measures aren’t going to do it here,” Brogan said. “The whales are in too precarious a situation for us to take baby steps here. New regulations don’t come along very often, and we need the government to step up and be bold stewards for these whales. And they need to go into effect soon. We can’t wait."
Participants in the virtual event also were sent a toolkit that compiled the registration links to testify at four federal hearings this month, along with a general comment form created by Oceana and other information. Those wishing to know more about the campaign can find information at oceana.org/RightWhaleToSave.