Today, the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife and Fisheries held a hearing on bills including the RESCUE Whales Act, the only one of four on the subcommittee’s agenda that would benefit wildlife and help combat the biodiversity and climate crises.
Introduced by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the bill would repeal a section of the FY2023 omnibus appropriations bill that significantly delays court-ordered regulatory action under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). This is needed to help prevent the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale in the face of unsustainable lethal entanglements in the American lobster/Jonah crab fishery.
“It cannot be overstated how important passing this bill is for the future of the North Atlantic right whale. We thank Rep. Grijalva for supporting sound science and our landmark conservation laws. Congress must take this opportunity to give this iconic species a chance to swim another day, free of painful and deadly fishing gear entanglements.”JANE DAVENPORT, SENIOR ATTORNEY FOR DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE
“It cannot be overstated how important passing this bill is for the future of the North Atlantic right whale. We thank Rep. Grijalva for supporting sound science and our landmark conservation laws,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife. “Congress must take this opportunity to give this iconic species a chance to swim another day, free of painful and deadly fishing gear entanglements.”
There are fewer than 340 remaining North Atlantic right whales. Each year, entanglements in trap/pot gear used in the American lobster/Jonah crab fishery kill an average of four whales. However, many entanglements are never detected or identified. . The National Marine Fisheries Service has determined that no more than 0.7 right whales a year (or seven whales over a decade) can be killed by human activity and still allow the species to recover.
• High levels of deaths and injuries due to entanglements and vessel strikes led the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) to declare an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for the species beginning in 2017. To date, observed whales documented in the UME have numbered more than 20 percent of the population, with 36 deaths, 33 serious injuries (i.e., injuries likely to result in death), and 29 sublethal injuries and illnesses
• These numbers are an undercount of actual mortality levels. Research demonstrates that two-thirds of right whale deaths are never observed.
• In July 2022, a federal district court found that a September 2021 rule to reduce lethal entanglements in the U.S. American lobster and Jonah crab fishery violated statutory requirements under the MMPA. The court also found that a May 2021 biological opinion violated MMPA and ESA. In November 2022, the court ordered NOAA Fisheries to complete a new MMPA rulemaking by Dec. 9, 2024.
• Language was added to the 2023 omnibus appropriations bill to significantly delay this court-ordered rulemaking. The language states that the 2021 rule “shall be deemed sufficient to ensure that the continued federal and state authorizations of the American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries are in full compliance” with the ESA and MMPA until Dec. 31, 2028.
- If whale death trends continue or accelerate because of this rulemaking pause, NMFS may have no choice but to close significant areas to fishing starting in 2029.
- The solution to this problem is to transition as quickly as possible to on-demand (sometimes called “ropeless”) gear in times and areas where there is a high risk of right whale and lobster gear co-occurrence. These innovative fishing technologies will reduce whale entanglements and keep the American lobster/Jonah crab fishery operating.
- Congress dedicated supplemental funds in the 2023 omnibus for this purpose.
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