Washington, DC — Three right whales, the most endangered mammal on earth, may have died this week, according to information obtained by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Two whales had been sighted off the North Carolina Coast entangled in fishing gear, and one of these has been confirmed as a right whale. The second may also be a right whale, but scientists have not yet been able to approach it to ascertain the species. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries have confirmed to PEER that a third right whale carcass has been sighted but not recovered off the coast of Nantucket, Island in Massachusetts.
With only 300 animals left in existence, the right whale is under continual threat from collisions with commercial shipping, entanglement in fishing gear and acoustical damage from new Navy sonar arrays.
Compounding concerns, two pregnant female right whales were also killed by ship strikes in November. One of those females was carrying a calf that was almost full term. On November 17th, a Navy Amphibious Assault Ship reported a whale strike about 10 miles outside the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. The body of the pregnant whale and her calf washed ashore along the Northern Outer Banks in Ocean Sands, North Carolina one week later.
"These losses are hurtling the North Atlantic right whale back to the brink of extinction," stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist. "In the meantime, our federal policy avoids action to protect the right whale and merely keeps a count of the mounting toll."
On August 31, 2004, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries published a "Draft Revised Recovery Plan for the North Atlantic Right Whale" but this plan lacks any mandatory provisions. At the same time, NOAA is postponing action on proposed speed limits and shipping buffers to reduce the chance for, and impact of, collisions with ships. In addition, NOAA is relying on private donations to help convert fishing fleets to using buoyant fishing gear that reduce the risk of entanglement.
"Losing three whales in a week and five in little over a month is a true crisis for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale population," added Bennett. "The scientists at NOAA know what needs to be done but the political will is lacking."