Landmark law saved whales through marine industries change

Apr 13, 2023, 9:08 PM

A North Atlantic right whale surfaces on Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts, Monday, March 27, 2023. The...

A North Atlantic right whale surfaces on Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts, Monday, March 27, 2023. The protected species has been at the center of a longtime dispute between federal regulators and commercial fishing and shipping industries. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, NOAA permit # 21371)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, NOAA permit # 21371)

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — On a breezy spring day, scientists and conservationists methodically conducted experiments near 15 North Atlantic right whales that occasionally spouted and surfaced in a bay south of Boston.

The pod of adults and calves is about 4% of the worldwide population of a marine mammal that almost disappeared from the planet after many decades of commercial whaling. There now are only a few hundred of the behemoths, which can weigh 70 tons (63.5 metric tons) and subsist on small ocean organisms.

Although right whale numbers are dwindling, conservationists attribute their continued survival to the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The landmark federal law — a half century old this year — has forced the fishing and commercial shipping industries to take important steps to help protect the critically endangered whales. And it’s spurred government agencies and scientists to undertake research.

David Wiley, research ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was part of the crew that spent late March and early April testing the water off Cape Cod for the presence of a naturally occurring chemical that could help predict where right whales will congregate.

That knowledge, Wiley said, can help in forming new rules that safeguard the whales from threats such as entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. While Wiley’s crew was working, a right whale was found entangled in Cape Cod Bay.

“They will go extinct in our lifetime if we don’t do something,” he said. “The goal of my research is to protect animals, right whales, humpback whales.”

Numerous whale species are protected under the Endangered Species Act, including the blue, fin and sperm whale. Some, including the North Atlantic right whale, have been listed since the act passed in 1973. The law also protects other marine mammals, including some seal species, and ocean dwellers such as sea turtles.

Few animals have brought more change to marine industries than the right whale, and conservationists say survival of the species, which numbers about 340 worldwide, is testament to the act’s importance.

“While they continue to decline at this very moment, I’m convinced that without the Endangered Species Act they wouldn’t be here,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Massachusetts-based Whale & Dolphin Conservation USA.

But as federal regulators craft new protections for the whale and other declining marine animals, fishing and shipping industries that have been altered by decades of conservation laws are digging in for a new round of fighting for their own interests.

The U.S. lobster fishing industry, one of America’s most lucrative seafood sectors, supports the act, said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. But she said fishermen also need reasonable rules and some recent proposed restrictions on fishing go too far.

In recent years, disagreements over the proper way to apply the act have increasingly brought the industry into court. “We need to have realistic approaches to how environmental management is handled,” Casoni said. “It becomes extremely costly for the industry to fight the ongoing litigation that’s brought forth by the environmental groups.”

___

Maritime industries are subject to a host of restrictions aimed at protecting the rare whales. Rules cover how fast vessels can travel and where commercial fishermen can fish. There are slow zones, protected zones and limitations on types of fishing gear.

The act has permanently protected thousands of square miles of ocean habitat to give the animals sanctuary from disturbances by human activities. The act has prompted innovations, such as spare turtles from shrimp fishing on the Gulf Coast.

Fisheries for lucrative seafood species, such as scallops and groundfish, also have made changes to conform with the act. The act has brought observers onto fishing boats to make sure fishermen follow rules and it has barred fishing in places where vulnerable species are located.

“I feel like it drives technological innovation, and it also protects a whole suite of other species by reducing risks for whatever the listed species is,” said Janet Coit, assistant administrator for fisheries with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates commercial fishing. “The law has stood the test of time.”

___

The law’s protections are set to expand in coming years. On the East Coast, NOAA is crafting new and broader fishing restrictions to reduce the likelihood whales will suffer injury or death from entanglements in gear. The agency also is considering enlarged speed restriction zones that will apply to many shippers.

On the West Coast, new protections are coming for endangered whales off California. The International Maritime Organization has adopted a U.S. proposal that takes effect this summer and would expand restrictions on vessel traffic to give endangered whales such as blues and fins more undisturbed sea.

Lobster fishers have vowed to fight new restrictions on fishing off the East Coast, which many say will put the industry out of business. Proposed restrictions necessitate new ropeless gear that isn’t widely available yet, said David Cousens, a lobsterman in South Thomaston, Maine.

“The technology’s not there. Common sense is what needs to prevail here, not pie in the sky dreaming,” Cousens said.

Vessels strikes and entanglements are two of the biggest threats whales face. But expansion of vessel traffic restrictions has also been met with resistance from shippers who fear compliance will be difficult, said Kathy Metcalf, president of the Chamber of Shipping of America.

“All we are trying to do is get some reasonable restrictions in place and still be able to serve the people who are waiting for their Nike sneakers and fuel oil or whatever and still serve a measure of protection to the animals,” Metcalf said.

___

Long a focus of conservationists, the plight of whales helped inspire the Endangered Species Act. Many species were devastated during the commercial whaling era, when they were hunted for meat and oil.

The gray whale, ranging from Mexico to Alaska in the Pacific, is often held up as one of the act’s greatest success stories since it was delisted in 1994 after populations rebounded. The U.S. government also has removed most populations of humpback whales from the list following recovery.

“The Endangered Species Act has a legal impact. A tangible result,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which works to preserve marine animals. “The Endangered Species Act has lifted our sensitivity to rare species.”

Others, like the North Atlantic right whale, have been slower to recover. The whale’s population is falling in part because of climate-related warming of the ocean, which scientists say is pushing the animals outside protected zones and into harm’s way in search of food. They’ve lost about 30% of their population since 2010.

The swift decline shows the act can’t save an animal if it’s not applied aggressively, said Michael Moore, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Marine Mammal Center in Massachusetts. “That level of collapse can hardly be seen as a success,” Moore said.

If the whale is to survive, the law will need to play a critical role, said Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign manager for the conservation group Oceana.

“The Endangered Species Act is a big hammer … that has forced action, necessary action, to make sure that the needs of these species are taken care of both in fisheries management and other activities where otherwise they would be ignored,” Brogan said.

___

Associated Press videojournalist Rodrique Ngowi and photographer Robert F. Bukaty contributed to this report from Plymouth, Massachusetts.

___

Follow Patrick Whittle on Twitter: @pxwhittle

___

Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

United States News

Associated Press

Four dead in Missouri after car crosses center line, strikes motorcyclists

AURORA, Mo. (AP) — Four people died and seven others were seriously injured when a car crossed the center line of a Missouri highway and struck five motorcycles. The accident happened Saturday afternoon on Missouri Route 39 near the southwestern Missouri town of Aurora. The Missouri State Highway Patrol said a Toyota Corolla crossed the […]

8 hours ago

Associated Press

7 shot, 1 fatally, in Chicago when gunfire erupts amid remembrance for man killed in car crash

CHICAGO (AP) — A 25-year-old woman was fatally shot and six other people were wounded early Sunday when gunfire erupted in Chicago during a remembrance for a man who died in a car crash, police said. A large group of people had gathered about 1 a.m. to mark four years since a man’s fatal crash […]

8 hours ago

President Joe Biden addresses the nation on the budget deal that lifts the federal debt limit and a...

Associated Press

Biden’s theory of the case for 2024 is governing and competence over Trump-era combat and chaos

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden promised voters in 2020 that he knew how to get things done in Washington and could bring stability to the capital. It seemed like a message out of step with the more combative era brought on by Donald Trump. But the bipartisan debt limit and budget legislation he signed […]

8 hours ago

File - Apple CEO Tim Cook discusses the Apple Watch at the Apple event at the Bill Graham Civic Aud...

Associated Press

Apple is expected to unveil sleek headset aimed at thrusting the masses into alternate realities

Apple appears poised to unveil a long-rumored headset that will place its users between the virtual and real world, while also testing the technology trendsetter’s ability to popularize new-fangled devices after others failed to capture the public’s imagination. After years of speculation, the stage is set for the widely anticipated announcement to be made Monday […]

8 hours ago

FILE - A person, reflected in glass, walks near the Tropicana Las Vegas on May 16, 2023, in Las Veg...

Associated Press

Las Vegas ballpark pitch revives debate over public funding for sports stadiums

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Gov. Joe Lombardo wants to help build Major League Baseball’s smallest ballpark, arguing that the worst team in baseball can boost Las Vegas, a city striving to call itself a sports mecca. Debate about public funding for private sports clubs has been revived with the Oakland Athletics ballpark proposal. The […]

1 day ago

FILE - Coretta Scott King, widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., speaks at an ...

Associated Press

Carter and the Kings: A friendship and alliance — but after MLK’s assassination

ATLANTA (AP) — The voice of Martin Luther King Sr., a melodic tenor like his slain son, carried across Madison Square Garden, calming the raucous Democrats who had nominated his friend and fellow Georgian for the presidency. “Surely, the Lord sent Jimmy Carter to come on out and bring America back where she belongs,” the […]

1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

...

SANDERSON FORD

Thank you to Al McCoy for 51 years as voice of the Phoenix Suns

Sanderson Ford wants to share its thanks to Al McCoy for the impact he made in the Valley for more than a half-decade.

...

OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

How to identify the symptoms of 3 common anxiety disorders

Living with an anxiety disorder can be debilitating and cause significant stress for those who suffer from the condition.

(Desert Institute for Spine Care in Arizona Photo)...

Desert Institute for Spine Care in Arizona

5 common causes for chronic neck pain

Neck pain can debilitate one’s daily routine, yet 80% of people experience it in their lives and 20%-50% deal with it annually.

Landmark law saved whales through marine industries change