© 2023
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fight to Save Critically Endangered Right Whales Moves to Court

Scientists from NOAA Fisheries Service approach a young North Atlantic right whale in order to disentangle it. New research shows whales with severe entanglements in rope and fishing gear are experiencing stunted growth, and body lengths have been decreasing since 1981.
NOAA News Archive 011811
NOAA News Archive 011811
Scientists from NOAA Fisheries Service approach a young North Atlantic right whale in order to disentangle it. New research shows whales with severe entanglements in rope and fishing gear are experiencing stunted growth, and body lengths have been decreasing since 1981.

KATHRYN: The fight is on to save North Atlantic right whales. There are just over 360 left in the world, and conservationists and scientists are studying the critically endangered creatures and how to save them. Legal battles are also playing out that could have a major impact on conservation efforts—and the multi-million dollar lobster fishery here in Massachusetts.

CAI’s environment reporter Eve Zuckoff joins us now to talk about whales in the courtroom. Morning, Eve.

EVE: Hi there, Kathryn.

KATHRYN: So today a case is being heard in U.S. district court in Boston. Give us a preview.

EVE: Right. Well, this activist named Max Strahan wants a judge to ban the state of Massachusetts from authorizing fisheries that use vertical rope. So we’re really talking about the lobster fishery here because those ropes can entangle, and kill North Atlantic right whales.

I’ll note Strahan has been in court many times fighting for the whales, but hasn’t made a lot of friends in the whale conservation sphere. He’s made some controversial statements and operates very much on his own.

And his case today builds on a judge’s order last year that gave the state just 90 days to get a key federal permit that would increase federal oversight on the lobster fishery. The judge said that while the Massachusetts has done the most of any state in the country to keep right whales from getting entangled in fishing line it hasn’t done enough.

The state still hasn’t gotten that permit because — it argues — the process can take years and regulators have started the process, but they’re going to try to prove that they’ve made a good faith effort. Regulators have expanded a closure for the lobster fishery, they’ve also mandated the use of weak ropes that that break when pulled by a whale, and they’re working on aggressive gear marking requirements.

And that brings us back to today’s case, where Strahan will try to convince the court that since state hasn’t gotten the permit, this judge should shut down the lobster fishery, which she said she’d consider doing last year.

If she does that, it could decimate the lobster fishery and set precedent for states like Maine.

KATHRYN: How likely is it that the judge will buy Strahan’s argument given that this permit takes years and that shutting down the lobster fishery would cause major economic hardship?

EVE: It’s a drastic move, and seems somewhat unlikely, because of what Massachusetts has already done and the fact that no right whale entanglements have been seen in state waters this year. But then again, anything could happen, so leaders on from both sides of the argument are going to be watching closely with their lawyers for the next two weeks.

KATHRYN: I want to turn now to another set of lawsuits that might be on the horizon. And that’s because the federal government has released a 10-year plan aimed at reducing the lobster fisheries impact on the North Atlantic right whale species. This report is brand new and elicited a lot of reactions.

EVE: Yes. This plan, called a biological opinion, finalizes a handful of proposed reforms on commercial fishermen. It’s mainly intended to reduce the amount of vertical rope in whale habitat, and it calls for a 98% reduction in risk to right whales over a single decade. It’s carried out in four phases.

And this plan is the result of an earlier lawsuit when several conservation groups challenged the previous biological opinion in court, and a judge agreed, saying it violated the Endangered Species Act.

But conservationists say this latest biological opinion is not better. They say the first phase would allow an average of 2.7 right whales to be killed or seriously injured in fishing gear each year, but that’s still three times higher than what scientists say is necessary to allow the species to actually recover. Then, the next 3 phases have practically no details right now.

Conservationists say they are unhappy because while the feds working out the details of the next phases, the right whale population could drop to a level where it can’t recover.

It’s a whole other conversation, but there’s also been new research that shows that right whales aren’t growing to their full size capacity because of the stress from entanglements, and ship strikes.

And, by the way, lobstermen are equally unhappy with the report. The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association declined to comment until the group meets later this month, but a representative for the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which has been raising money in a legal fund for a while now, said the plan will devastate the lobster fishery, especially smaller boats. The fishery would need a complete reinvention.

So another lawsuit — when all these parties are this unhappy— is not off the table.

KATHRYN: We only have a few seconds left, but how effective would court cases be in protecting the species?

EVE: I think there probably has to be a mix of conservation efforts.

Certainly, getting a judge to definitively call for more protections or reject measures that go too far, can provide immediate impact.

But conservationists say to save right whales from becoming functionally extinct in about 20 years, they’d need to do a number of things, including getting ropeless fishing gear developed and tested, getting interstate and international cooperation to limit whale collisions with ships, and getting a lot more money for enforcing right whale protections. I should note that some of this is in the works. There’s a bill on Beacon Hill that earmarks a quarter million dollars for more environmental police patrols.

So, really, this means whales will definitely still be in the courtroom for years to come because people in this fight know what’s at stake.

KATHRYN: There is a lot at stake, not just the species, but the fishery, as well. That is CAI’s environment reporter Eve Zuckoff. Even, thanks for keeping an eye on these developments.

EVE: Thank you, Kathryn.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.