North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are one of the most endangered animals on the planet with fewer than 450 remaining. While they once roamed both sides of the Atlantic, they now only exist on the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada where they struggle to survive. Ship traffic, fishing gear, pollution, and offshore energy developments create daily physical and acoustical obstacle courses through which they must weave to find food, and each other.
But they are not beyond hope. What we, as humans, do, will determine which way the pendulum swings- recovery or extinction. And the US is legally obligated to work toward recovery, even if we (as a nation) sometimes forget we are. Right now, thanks to your support, WDCS is helping to remind the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that they have a legal obligation to protect these animals.
With the passage of the Endangered Species Act (in 1973), right whales received legal protection which included the creation of Critical Habitat - areas that are critical to the conservation of the species (i.e. have physical characteristics that known to be important for things like breeding, feeding, and nursing.) In 1994, Critical Habitat was designated for Northern right whales (E. glacialis) in Cape Cod Bay, the Great South Channel (East of Cape Cod) and off the coast of northern Florida. Those areas were known to be important feeding and nursing areas in the north, and calving areas in the south. Last year, WDCS, along with the Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, and Ocean Conservancy, petitioned NMFS (the federal agency charged with protecting whales) to expand Critical Habitat for NA right whales. Researchers from NMFS, itself, had discovered previously unknown habitats of significance for the species. It seemed like a no-brainer, to be honest.
However, NMFS never responded to our petition. We waited, and waited, and waited.......... 90 days passed, the legally mandated limit for them to respond to our petition. Nothing. So we went to Washington DC (another thank you for your support which got us there) and asked what the problem was.
Seems when NMFS designated North Pacific right whales as a separate species from North Atlatnic right whales in 2008, they weren't sure if
Critical Habitat still existed legally in the North Atlantic. So they couldn't respond to a request to "expand" if it wasn't there.
We pointed out a variety of NMFS documents where they referred to Critical Habitat as still existing for North Atlantic right whales post 2008, as well as pointed out that the species designation E. glacialis, for which Critical Habitat in the Atlantic was designated, remained with North Atlantic right whales. They said they would get back to us shortly. So we waited some more...................... But we can't wait any longer and neither can NA right whales. As a result, WDCS, along with Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Humane Society of the United States filed a suit today. It was not our first choice, but a necessary one.
I am not a lawyer, I am a biologist. I have studied right whales, I have necropsied dead animals on a beach that had been either killed by ships or entangled in fishing gear. I have heard them talk to each other. I have seen them interact. I am privileged. And I am ever so grateful to the lawyers and advocates that can do something legally to help ensure that, in the future, the privilege will not be mine alone.
There are many, many lawyer jokes- but I am humbled by the dedication and passion for which the lawyers and advocates have fought for a species they have not yet seen in the wild. And I am sincerely thankful to our supporters who fund us to make sure that NMFS doesn't forget they have a legal obligation to make sure the pendulum swings toward recovery
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