3 whales on the path to extinction in US waters
If current trends hold, the U.S. will earn the uniquely ignominious distinction of presiding over the extinction of three large whale species which largely or solely inhabit our waters. The extinction of any one of these whales would be a black eye for American conservation while the loss of all three would be an utter disgrace.
These three whale species principally or solely inhabit American waters in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. All have been steadily declining, and their remaining populations are now on their last legs:
- The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale faces rising mortality from entanglements with fishing gear and its numbers have been reduced to only approximately 350 individuals.
- By the time the Gulf of Mexico or Bryde’s whale was finally recognized as a distinct subspecies in 2019, its population was down to approximately 60 remaining whales.
- The North Pacific right whale is at growing risk from expanded ship traffic in warming Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska waters has only about 30 individuals left.
While these whales occupy waters which span our hemisphere, their situations have one salient feature in common. In each case, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been blocking or slow-walking desperately needed protections even as threats aggravated by climate change grow.
The fight for survival of the North Atlantic right whale has received by far the most public attention. Yet, even as new entanglements with fishing lines are reported, NOAA has reauthorized 10 fishing operations with few additional safeguards. Further, in court filings, NOAA misrepresented the state of scientific research, by omitting work authored by NOAA’s own scientists, showing that more protections are needed for this critically endangered marine mammal. NOAA appears committed to putting a good face on an unquestionably dire situation.
The Gulf of Mexico whale’s only known habitat is the Gulf’s DeSoto Canyo, where it faces threats from ocean noise, energy development, oil spills and ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and ocean debris. Yet, NOAA is currently fighting lawsuits that would enforce legal requirements to designate critical habitat and develop a recovery plan for this fast-vanishing whale.
Meanwhile, the North Pacific right whale is at growing risk from both entanglements and ship strikes exacerbated by the retreat of sea ice, due to climate change, and the opening of the Northwest passage. NOAA has no recommendations for saving this species and has devoted little research to determine where they calve, their migratory pattern or their distribution.
Housed in the Commerce Department, NOAA has a conflicting dual mandate where its conservation responsibilities clash with its charge to foster our domestic fishing industry. The new Commerce Secretary is Gina Raimondo, a former Rhode Island governor with a mixed environmental track record, who fishing groups have praised.
At the same time, President Biden has endorsed the ambitious goal of protecting to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and coastal seas by 2030. That is a far cry from where we are today, with less than 8 percent of U.S. seas under largely partial protection.
Most of this work will largely fall to a new NOAA administrator, who has yet to be nominated. Whoever is named, that person should realize that reaching this major marine conservation goal and taking meaningful steps to save these imperiled whales will require a sea change at NOAA.
Kyla Bennett is the science policy director at Public Employees for Environmental responsibility (PEER) and is a scientist and attorney formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.