Court Rules in Key Case to Protect One of Earth’s Rarest Whales


A United States federal court has ruled that federal fisheries managers failed to protect critically endangered North Atlantic right whales when opening nearly 3,000 square miles of previously protected New England marine waters to dangerous fishing gear.

There are only around 400 North Atlantic right whales left on earth. In response to litigation from the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) and Earthjustice, the court ordered that, until the government complies with wildlife and fishery protection laws, it must not allow a certain type of entangling fishing gear in areas where right whales are known to gather.

Right whales are on the brink of extinction, pushed closer by a rash of recent and unprecedented deaths. Image credit NOAA NMFS Northeast Regional Office, CC BY 2.0.

“With nearly 30 North Atlantic right whales killed by human activity since 2017, we’re losing our chance to prevent their extinction,” said Steve Mashuda, Managing Attorney for Earthjustice’s Oceans Program. “Rather than pull out all the stops to arrest this decline, the Trump administration took a see-no-evil approach and expanded the gauntlet of fishing gear that can harm and kill these whales, without considering how this would affect the population. The Court’s decision rejects the government’s attempt to whistle past the graveyard when it comes to protecting this icon of the Atlantic.”

Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading threat to right whales, and the National Marine Fisheries Service has stated that even a single death is a threat to the species’ survival.

U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg’s ruling found that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it opened thousands of square miles of right whale habitat to fishing with gear known to entangle, injure, and kill right whales. The Court’s decision prohibits the use of sink gillnets — walls of mesh designed to entangle animals that swim into them — in two areas off the New England coast covering approximately 3,000 square miles.

A right whale with several fishing ropes wrapped around their flipper. This is a common cause of death for this critically endangered species. Image credit Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 932-1905/MA-009526.

In recent years, these areas have become increasingly important as gathering and feeding spots for right whales, with up to a quarter of the population spotted in these areas during some seasons of the year.

“Expanded fishing in a right whale hot spot flies in the face of the Endangered Species Act,” said Erica Fuller, CLF Senior Attorney. “This ruling rightfully reverses a dangerous course and will give right whales the protection they need from fishing gear. We cannot afford to lose even one more of these critically endangered creatures.”

Featured image: a right whale entangled in fishing gear. Image credit Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA Research Permit # 594-1759.

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