Once again, Maine’s congressional delegation is shamefully attempting to block protections for North Atlantic right whales, which, as many readers will have heard, are now teetering on the brink of extinction. Shouldn’t they instead be working to help bring about solutions to this crisis?

Scientists are warning us that right whales, those incredible creatures who have graced our East Coast waters for millions of years, could disappear in the next 20 years if humans don’t stop injuring and killing them. These injuries and deaths have reduced their population by almost 25 percent in less than a decade. Only around 70 breeding females remain, many of whom have had their ability to bear young diminished because of injuries resulting from entanglements in fishing gear. So their prospects for the future are not looking good – we are killing these whales far faster than they can reproduce.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for protecting endangered marine species, has repeatedly failed that responsibility regarding right whales. For decades it has been dragging its feet, putting in place protective measures only when forced to by legal action. Even then, these measures are never enough. Hence, the current situation.

Because of this, an emergency petition was filed with NMFS last month by conservation groups to protect right whales from their leading cause of death – entanglements in commercial fishing gear. The petition called on NMFS to meet its legal obligations by treating the situation as the emergency that it is, and ensuring that new regulations are in place while NMFS develops long-term regulations.

In response to this, on Dec. 16, Maine’s congressional delegation sent a joint letter urging the Commerce Department, of which NMFS is part, to reject the emergency petition, claiming it would bypass the established regulatory process.

But the petition was filed lawfully, and very clearly. To date the established regulatory process has utterly failed to adequately protect the whales. Already more than a year behind on its initial promise to produce new proposed long-term protections, NMFS finally released them Dec. 30.

Unfortunately, protections will remain inadequate even under the new proposed rule, which relies heavily on weak rope that will continue to entangle whales. It supposedly allows entangled whales to break free of some of the entangling gear, but in reality, it will likely still be too strong for juveniles and already-entangled or otherwise-injured and weakened whales to free themselves of any of the gear. For this and other reasons, the proposed protections do not go nearly far enough. Besides that, the proposed rule still needs to receive public comments, to be finalized and to finally be put into effect.

That could be a long time. How many more whales will be entangled while this process goes on? Obviously, despite what our delegation says, there is an urgent need for these emergency regulations.

There are over a million active vertical buoy lines for trap-pot gear in waters the right whale inhabits, and it is these lines which so frequently entangle them. New ropeless fishing technology, which is being developed and tested, will eliminate the need for vertical buoy lines, thereby greatly reducing the risk of entanglement. Transitioning to this gear will be a win for whales, fishermen and the rest of us.

Yet the delegation’s letter goes on to dismiss ropeless fishing gear, claiming it is not viable.

Rather than brushing off the great potential this gear has to protect both whales and fishing operations, Maine’s delegation should insist on ample federal funding and incentives to drive further development, testing and rapid deployment of ropeless gear. The costs cannot be shouldered solely by fishermen – they must be helped in making this transition.

Budgets reflect priorities. For an imperceptible fraction of the billions wasted by the government each year, we could fully fund all these costs, genuinely protecting right (and other) whales from entanglements and fishermen from closures. Let’s demand that this be done, and then let’s genuinely deal with other threats to the right whale’s continued existence, including ship strikes and the Navy’s reckless use of its sonar.


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