Bipartisan effort to save North Atlantic right whales moving forward in Congress

As North Atlantic right whales edge closer to extinction, a bipartisan effort in Congress is being made to save the species and the ecosystem it helps support.

There are only around 400 or less right whales in existence today. Not only were they hunted by humans for oil, they continue to suffer from human activity as they die from boat strikes in shipping lanes, entanglement in fishing gear and from ingesting microplastics while feeding on plankton.

Many whale species are facing the same threats, but the right whales are particularly vulnerable because their numbers have reached critical lows. Numbers that will only get lower due to seismic testing in the oceans by the oil and gas industry.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity:

Offshore oil and gas exploration uses deafening seismic airgun blasts that harm marine mammals. The oil industry is now seeking federal permits to do seismic testing even in areas where offshore drilling is currently prohibited, including the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Department of the Interior environmental studies estimate that seismic proposals now under review would cause more than 31 million instances of harm to marine mammals in the Gulf and 13.5 million harmful interactions with marine mammals in the Atlantic, killing or injuring 138,000 dolphins and whales — including nine endangered North Atlantic right whales, whose calving grounds are off Florida’s coast. Hundreds of communities along the East Coast have expressed their opposition to seismic testing and the offshore drilling that it could lead to.

“The blasts — which can reach more than 250 decibels and be heard for miles — can cause hearing loss in marine mammals, disturb essential behaviors such as feeding and breeding, mask communications between individual whales and dolphins, and reduce catch rates of commercial fish,” the report adds.

That’s why Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) and Rep. John Rutherford (R-Fla.) are working together to push new protections for right whales through Congress, protections that would benefit other species and the overall ecosystem as well.

In an article written for Commonwealth Magazine, Moulton announced the effort and explained why it is important.

Some may wonder why it’s important to save a species from extinction. The more scientists learn about ecosystems, the more they understand how complex, sometimes subtle, interconnections between species contribute to the Earth’s habitability. The North Atlantic right whale is no exception. By virtue of their feeding habits and their range from Florida to Canada, right whales fertilize the entire marine food chain and support the marine productivity upon which robust and economically valuable fisheries depend. This species is also an important “canary in the coal mine,” providing scientists, managers, and policymakers early warning cues on how to more effectively manage and protect other species, ecosystems, and habitats impacted by warming and acidification of today’s changing oceans.

The good news is that seven calves have been spotted in the calving grounds off the Florida coast. The problem is that these new calves and the 400 other right whales are still at risk of extinction due to the causes listed above. But Moulton expressed hope that a bill will be passed.

“Republicans and Democrats on the House of Representative’s Committee on Natural Resources worked together and passed the SAVE Right Whales Act out of committee on Wednesday,” he wrote. “Next stop is the House floor for a full vote. We urge Congress to pass The Save Right Whales Act and send it to the President’s desk as fast as possible. The future of these young calves and the 400 other right whales in the Atlantic as well as fishing economies up and down the East Coast are counting on collective action. Let’s unite and bring this iconic animal back from the brink.”

Ships should slow down during approach to U.S. ports, especially during the migration seasons when whales swim North to feeding grounds and then South again to give birth to calves. This would contribute greatly since many of the whales have been killed by ship strikes over the years. Seismic testing by the United States military and private industries should be restricted to spare migrating whales from the disturbing blasts that hinder breeding and feeding. And the fishing industry should take more care in how they use their gear so as not to accidentally ensnare whales.

Right whales are one of the largest creatures on our planet and they can live to be hundreds of years old. Protecting them should be a priority so their numbers can return to normal, something the species has struggled with since whalers wiped out tens of thousands of them in the 19th and 20th centuries.

We owe it to the whales, ourselves and the planet to save them from extinction.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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