Washington, DC — The federal government’s top advisor on protecting marine mammals says inaction by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is condemning the endangered North Atlantic right whale to extinction, according to a letter released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). For the past year, NOAA has been sitting on proposed rules that would require reduced ship speeds, rerouting and channel restrictions to minimize ship traffic in sensitive calving, mating and migratory areas.
Ship strikes are the largest known cause of death for the right whale, considered one of the planet’s most endangered species with less than 300 animals left in existence. In the past several months, five percent of the total female breeding population has been lost, as well as two near term calves.
In January 2005, the Marine Mammal Commission wrote to William Hogarth, head of NOAA Fisheries, asking that his agency implement “emergency rules…aimed at reducing ship strikes,” adding that “further delays in taking action will result in additional right whale deaths and increase the likelihood that the population will never recover.”
Although the Marine Mammal Commission sent its emergency recommendations on January 24, 2005, NOAA has yet to respond. By law (16 U.S.C. §1402(d)), NOAA is supposed to respond to Commission recommendations within 120 days – a deadline that lapsed in late May. Since that January letter, three more animals have been found dead, presumably ship struck, including a pregnant female whose tail was severed and whose fetus immediately died.
“The question is whether NOAA and its parent agency, the Department of Commerce, are so cowed by political pressure that they are incapable of effectively safeguarding marine life,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a former federal biologist. “When it comes to actually protecting the right whale, NOAA should be spelled MIA.”
Alarmed by a rash of right whale deaths this past fall, NOAA issued a press release in December announcing a “summit” of federal agencies “to seek immediate voluntary actions” to make “East Coast waters safer” for right whales. This summit never occurred nor did any actions to make the waters safer.
In its January letter, the Marine Mammal Commission also found that NOAA was not even requiring federal agencies to perform required consultations on their actions that may affect the right whale. The Commission concluded that “For the United States to maintain international credibility with regard to protecting endangered species, it must be willing to aggressively pursue recovery plans for species, such as the North Atlantic right whale, that are so critically endangered by human activity.”
“Credibility has not been the calling card for Commerce and NOAA,” Bennett added. “If this indifference is what happens in emergency situations, imagine the neglect on the array of ocean issues not in the daily news.”