This is the time of year when one of the rarest creatures on the planet, the North Atlantic Right Whale, heads south to the Atlantic waters off our shores. The species is on the brink of extinction and only 400 North Atlantic right whales remain. There are less than 100 breeding females left. Some lucky anglers have recently been able to see a surface near Jacksonville Beach.
Whales migrate 1,000 miles south of Nova Scotia and New England to give birth to their young in the waters off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
At least we hope they give birth. Two years ago, no right whale was born.
Last year has been better, with researchers counting seven calves born. But hope faded when 10 whales were found dead last summer at the northern end of their migratory route. All have been killed by human activity. In the past two years alone, 30 whales have died from collisions with ships or entangled in fishing gear, the main causes of their mortality.
These deaths are preventable.
This fall, Earthjustice and the Conservation Law Foundation won a major legal victory to protect right whales from dangerous fishing gear. A federal judge ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service broke endangered species law by opening up 3,000 square miles of protected habitat east of Nantucket and Cape Cod in 2018 to gillnets – from the walls mesh giants suspended in the water that entangle everything that swims in it. including right whales. In a move that will help more right whales survive, the judge ordered the area closed to this craft.
As the whales travel south along the Atlantic coast, they face a different – also preventable – threat of seismic fire from air cannons. Five private companies want to use seismic blasting in the Atlantic to search for oil and gas under the ocean. A year ago, the Trump administration allowed companies to “accidentally, but not intentionally, harass marine mammals” in a huge swath of the Atlantic Ocean stretching from Virginia to Florida.
The sound blasts from this activity are as loud as jet engines, and they repeat about every 16 seconds for days, weeks, or months. Underwater, sound can carry up to 2,500 miles.
This is a big problem for right whales and other sea creatures that depend on sound to communicate and find prey and mates. Whales have no way to protect themselves from the terribly loud sound. Studies around the world show that air cannon blasts can kill scallops and other crustaceans, reduce commercial fishing catches, make sea turtles erratic, and interfere with whales’ ability to communicate and feed.
It’s hard to imagine how a newborn right whale could cope with the continuous blasting noise. Or how a mother might communicate with her calf to make sure she’s not separated from her vulnerable new baby. It is cruel and unnecessary.
After the Trump administration allowed private companies to start blasting air guns, we and others went to court to stop it. Nine conservation groups, as well as many states and municipalities along the Atlantic coast, have filed a legal challenge against the permits because they violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. The case is ongoing and the air gun blasting plan is on hold – for now.
To understand how essential it is to protect North Atlantic right whales from such disturbances in the planet’s only calving ground, consider that a female right whale does not reproduce until it is 10 years old. and that her pregnancy lasts one year before the calf is born. Researchers report that right whales would normally have a new calf about every three years. Today, continued stress on whales has slowed reproduction, and now females only have calves every 6-10 years. In the last three calving seasons (2017-2019), there have only been 12 births.
Faced with this biological reality, we must do all we can to help these magnificent creatures survive, bounce back and renew their place in the ocean ecosystem.
If you would like to learn more about combating seismic blasting, please visit earthjustice.org/video/underwater-seismic-airguns.
Andrea Treece is a lawyer at Earthjustice and works on ocean issues. She is based in San Francisco.