New protections for North Atlantic right whales have been delayed for the fourth time in two years.
The delay by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), comes two months after a court found the agency violated the Endangered Species Act for its failure to protect the critically endangered species. There are around 400 of these whales left in the world, and scientists warn they could be extinct in the next 20 years without immediate action to protect them from entanglement in rope and fishing gear.
In 2018, a special team assembled by NOAA voted to reduce the number of lobster lines in the Gulf of Maine by about 50 percent. Final rules to enforce rope reductions were set to come out at the end of last year, then last March, then July. Now NOAA officials say they’re aiming for May 2021.
Whale protection activists decried the repeated delays.
“Delaying protection for a species that’s declining this rapidly is, quite frankly, unacceptable,” said Scott Landry, director of the Marine Animal Entanglement Response Team at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.
“We cannot reflect back on this part of history and say, ‘Well, that was our chance, and we lost it,’” he said. “That means losing a species.”
But the agency maintains it’s doing what it can, as fast as it can, to protect the whales.
“Rulemaking takes time,” NOAA spokesperson Allison Ferriera wrote in an email, “because it involves often complex analyses of biological, social, and economic impacts."
“We are not delaying anything,” she added.
Shortly after the news broke, The Pew Charitable Trusts submitted a petition to U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The petition urged Ross to enact emergency fishing closures in areas south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to protect the whales.
But Landry said he has doubts about the efficacy of such closures.
“We are seeing very swift changes in the habitat of right whales,” he said. “And with climate change we’re seeing shifts we didn’t predict and can’t predict. So what I would worry is that any proposed area closures could be a moving target.”
Landry said now he’s more interested in helping fishermen transition to ropeless fishing. Many scientists believe techniques that reduce the number of lines in the water will protect the whales and allow fishermen to continue their work, though not all fishermen agree that such measures are practical or safe.
Still, scientists like Landry say North Atlantic right whales don’t have much time left.
“Reducing rope is the one thing that we know could help this population.”