Save Pregnant North Atlantic Right Whales From Ships, Groups Plead

WASHINGTON, DC, May 20, 2005 (ENS) - Following the death early this month of another critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, a coalition of nine international animal and environmental protection organizations Thursday made an urgent appeal to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to issue immediate emergency regulations to protect the species from further death and injury due to ship strikes.

Only about 300 North Atlantic right whales exist today, making them one of the rarest marine mammals in the world.

On May 3, the carcass of a pregnant female right whale was found stranded on South Monomoy Island, a remote location off the east side of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

The dead whale, which measured at least 35 feet in length, was identified by the New England Aquarium as a nine year old female, who was last seen in the Bay of Fundy in September 2003.

Due to the remote location of the stranding, a full necropsy has not yet been carried out, but early reports indicate the whale may have died as a result of ship strike, with broken bones and bruising evident on the carcass, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) said.

Since February 2004, eight known right whales have died in U.S. waters, the NMFS acknowledges, but the conservationists say the correct number is likely higher due to undetected deaths.

Six of the dead whales were mature females; three were pregnant with near-term calves. All three expectant whales died by ship strike, including one by a U.S. Navy vessel.

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North Atlantic right whale found dead on an East Coast beach (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Despite the recent increase in right whale births, the decline of the species is accelerating because of ship-whale strikes and other human activities.

To promote their recovery, the coalition is petitioning the NMFS for emergency regulations that would slow vessels to 12 knots or less within 25 nautical miles of some east coast ports at expected high use times. In addition, the coalition would like to see vessels re-route their travel paths to avoid aggregations of whales.

"It is critical for the right whale population that NMFS enact these measures immediately until meaningful and permanent regulations are put in place," the coalition said.

With a combined membership of more than 11 million people, the coalition to protect the North Atlantic right whale species includes - Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, International Fund for Animal Welfare, International Wildlife Coalition, National Environmental Trust, Natural Resources Defense Council, Oceana, The Ocean Conservancy, and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.

"The future of the North Atlantic right whale depends on the actions of the National Marine Fisheries Service, making it critical for the agency to respond at once with interim measures until permanent solutions are enacted," a joint statement from the coalition said.

"What the government is being asked to do is entirely feasible," said the coalition, "and we are confounded by their continued resistance to take prompt action to save this species, as is certainly their legal and moral obligation."

To date, the NMFS has not responded to the coalition's petition.

The NMFS calls the western North Atlantic right whale, "one of the rarest of all large cetaceans and among the most endangered species in the world."

NMFS considers the best estimate of the number of North Atlantic right whales to be approximately 300, plus or minus 10 percent. NMFS believes that "the stock is well below the optimum sustainable population, especially given apparent declines in the population; as such, potential biological removal has been set to zero."

In February the agency issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement identifying alternatives for amending the "Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan," which covers North Atlantic right whales among other species. This process deals with the death of large whales from incidental entanglement in fishing gear, and it does not address ship strikes.

Still, the NMFS has restricted the setting of fishing and lobster gear in an area southeast of Chatham, Massachusetts, totaling 1,235 square nautical miles (4,236 km2) from May 15, through May 29 to protect right whales traveling through the area.

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The North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, ranges in weight from 40 to 80 tons, with females on the larger end of the scale. They eat small crustaceans called copepods and occasionally krill. (Photo courtesy IWC)
North Atlantic right whales live off the east coast of North America, from Florida to Nova Scotia. Much of the population migrates seasonally between New England and Newfoundland.

Pregnant females calve in the southern coastal waters of Georgia and Florida. There, mother and calves stay from December through March and then slowly head to New England for feeding.

Scientists at the New England Aquarium (NEA) say right whale mortality is exceeding reproduction. The loss of this number of whales, especially reproductive females, in such a short period of time is unprecedented in the 25 years NEA scientists have been studying this species.

A female right whale has the capacity to produce at least six calves in her life. The deaths since February 2004 represent a lost reproductive potential of as many as 30 animals, making the species' chance of recovery from decades of commercial whaling less likely, the coalition says.

The North Atlantic right whale has been listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since its passage in 1973 and also under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. This means that all federal agencies have a legal obligation to protect them and preserve their habitats.

The NMFS, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is responsible for the protection of all marine life, including the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

But the coalition warns that right whales, whose habitat includes the busy shipping lanes of the east coast, remain virtually unprotected from ship strikes, which continue to be the leading cause of deaths in the species.

Efforts have been made to keep ships and right whales apart. NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard have developed and implemented Mandatory Ship Reporting Systems that became operational in July 1999. When ships greater than 300 gross tons enter two key right whale habitats one off the northeast U.S. and one off the southeast U.S. - they are required to report to a shore-based station. In return, ships receive a message about right whales, their vulnerability to ship strikes, precautionary measures the ship can take to avoid hitting a whale, and locations of recent sightings.

The systems were endorsed by the International Maritime Organization a specialized organization of the United Nations. The entire program is supposed to be reviewed to assess its effectiveness, and to introduce advances in ship communication technologies.

Right whales got their name because whalers considered them the right whales to hunt. The WDCS explains that members of this species are easy to approach and catch, float when dead and have a lot of oil in the cells of their blubber. This oil was known as liquid gold in the whaling industry. It could be sold for making soap, shampoo, lipstick, paints, and as oil for burning in candles and lamps.