To let the right whale thrive and swim free, pass HR 1568

To let the right whale thrive and swim free, pass HR 1568
© Getty Images

There’s nothing quite like witnessing a 50-foot, 70-ton, North Atlantic right whale break the calm surface of the ocean in a cloud of spray, and then disappear beneath the surface. Once it was a common sight on the East Coast, but today, the very existence of the entire species is at risk: fewer than 100 reproductively-active females remain. Their major range is from Florida to the Canadian Maritimes.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that the North Atlantic right whale species has faced extinction. The species got its name from whalers, who identified it as the “right” whale to hunt due to their slow speed, tendency to remain near shore, ease of capture, and the fact that they floated after being killed. By the 1700’s, humans had hunted the species nearly to extinction.

Since 2010, however, the North Atlantic right whale has faced a less-visible extinction threat: Entanglement in fixed fishing gear, which leads to prolonged, severe suffering — entangled large whales take an average of six months to die — and poor reproductive success has been found to be among the chief causes of recent, steep declines. This is compounded by widespread fatal ship collisions. Since 2010 entanglement has been the largest source of diagnosed mortality.

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Efforts to save the North Atlantic right whale through attempts to enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act have conflicted with the socio-economic realities of trap fisheries. Passage of the “SAVE Right Whales Act” currently before Congress would be a significant step forward at a critical time; only seven new calves have been identified so far this year — after a year with no recorded births.

The bill would attempt to bring to bear the single greatest tool in our national arsenal to save the North Atlantic right whale: technological innovation. The bill provides for competitive grants to develop, test, and deploy innovative technologies and strategies to reduce or eliminate entanglement and vessel collisions.

A nation that can land humans on the moon and communicate at will, can certainly find a way to fish without killing whales. In fact, ropeless techniques that would eliminate entanglements are already used commercially in some areas of the U.S. and internationally. This bill would provide critical support to adapt and adopt these technologies more widely. Similarly, it would provide funding to update and improve technologies and management measures to help ships avoid whales.

Beyond the loss of these majestic animals, the societal, ecological and environmental consequences of this species’ extinction would be far-reaching, with the ripple effects yet unknown. The North Atlantic right whale and other whale species are critical to the health of the ocean on which a large and growing part of the U.S. economy relies.  

They are also a key indicator of our motivation to protect the largest living space on the planet and the things that live in it, large and small.

We're now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background extinction rate. In our lifetimes, we have watched the Baiji river dolphin become extinct, while an international effort to recover the last remaining Vaquita has struggled. This time, we have an opportunity to respond to a very simple challenge: How can we stop killing whales?

Our generation should not go down in history for squeezing the life out of these majestic animals slowly and inexorably, one by one. 

Dr. Hendrik Nollens is Vice President of Animal Health and Welfare at SeaWorld Parks. Dr. Michael Moore is a Senior Scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.