Defenders of Right Whale Fight Operation of Lobster Fishery

A North Atlantic right whale breaks the ocean surface off Provincetown, Mass., in Cape Cod Bay on April 10, 2008. Marine conservation groups say the endangered whale suffered so many accidental deaths in 2017 that it could challenge the species’ ability to recover. There are thought to be no more than 500 of the giant animals left. Biologists say there have been 12 known deaths of the whales since April 2017, meaning about 2 percent of the population died in just a few months. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Filing suit over the American lobster fishery — a $666.5 million operation that spans Maine to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina — a group of environmentalists say line entanglements will cause the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale in the next 22 years.

Including a grisly photograph of one fatal entanglement in the Jan. 18 complaint, lead plaintiff Center for Biological Diversity says these whales are “one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.”

As of 2016 — when lobster landings totaled more than 158.5 million pounds — there were only around 455 right whales left.

“Sadly, at least 17 right whales died in 2017 alone, pushing the species even closer to the brink of extinction,” the complaint states.

The Center for Biological Diversity brought the complaint in Washington with Defenders of Wildlife and the U.S. Humane Society, saying entanglements in commercial fishing gear accounted for 85 percent of diagnosed right whale mortalities between 2010 and 2016.

“North Atlantic right whales are in danger of entanglements from lobster gear because they feed and travel in many of the same cold water areas in which the fishery operates,” the complaint states. “The risk of entanglement occurs year-round, though the risk is greatest during the summer and fall when both whales and lobster gear are the most concentrated and co-occur in many areas.”

Environmentalists blame the continued operation of American lobster fishery for the near extinction of the North Atlantic right whale. This image of a dead whale tangled in fishing gear is included in a complaint several groups filed on Jan. 18, 2017, against federal fishing regulators.

Even the National Marine Fisheries Service doesn’t dispute these risks, the environmentalists say, quoting a 2014 biological opinion that found the fishery is likely to kill or seriously injury more than three North Atlantic right whales every year.

Alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act, the environmentalists say this finding should have led regulators to ensure that the fishery reduces the risk of further entanglements.

Jane Davenport, the lead attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, noted in a phone interview that there are high-tech innovations being developed that could make the fishing process “ropeless.”

“This is doable … but it hasn’t had the political will,” Davenport said.

Representatives for the government, which shut down over budget impasse until this afternoon, have not returned a voicemail seeking comment.

The plaintiffs note that right whiles can drown immediately when they’re tangled up in lobster gear, or can get injuries or infections caused by entanglement.

“It’s an unfortunate truth that this is a problem that has not been sufficiently addressed over the last twenty years … this is certainly not a new problem in the era of the Trump administration,” added Davenport, with Defenders of Wildlife.

Davenport said that her group has already gone to court “several times” to protect the right whale as part of a reduction team created by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The goal of this team “is to bring the mortality rate of the right whale down to zero,” Davenport said.

“This has never been achieved,” she added.

“These whales are not dying of old age,” Davenport continued. “They’re dying very young. Eighty-five percent have entanglement scars. … They’re all facing this existential threat.”

The right whale has been listed under the Endangered Species Act since 1970.

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