Conservation advocates call on Commerce Secretary to save right whales

Entanglements in fishing ropes threaten to extinguish the highly endangered North Atlantic right whales
For Immediate Release

BOSTON -- As news breaks of another serious North Atlantic right whale entanglement, conservation advocates along the East Coast called on Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to immediately implement new rules to save the eastern United States' most endangered marine mammal. Recent population estimates put the North Atlantic right whale population at 356, the lowest in decades. Scientists have linked the whale species’ decline to deaths from fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes.  

“Right whales have lived off our coast for millennia. But if we fail to act, our generation could be the last to see these gentle giants swim off our shores,” said Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts. “We have the tools and the knowledge to keep these iconic whales safe. We just have to use them.”  

Urging Raimondo to close certain areas off New England’s coastline to conventional lobster and crab fishing, Environment America, Environment Massachusetts, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Georgia Wildlife Federation and One Hundred Miles sent the Biden administration’s commerce secretary an emergency action petition calling for immediate action to save the North Atlantic right whales from extinction. By seasonally closing off key right whale habitats to the vertical fishing lines, the North Atlantic right whales would have a fighting chance at long-term survival.

“We need to protect right whales from the vertical fishing lines that ensnare, entangle and kill them,” said Steve Blackledge, senior conservation director with Environment America. “Right now, that means stopping conventional lobster and crab fishing in the areas where right whales hang out. Over the long term, it means working with crab and lobster fishers to use gear that doesn’t require the use of ropes -- gear that is already being tested in New England waters.”

North Atlantic right whales, which spend most of their lives swimming along the U.S. and Canadian coastlines, have been dying in unusually high numbers since 2017. To stave off extinction, NOAA estimates that we can afford to lose less than one right whale to human-caused mortality per year, but this year alone, fishing gear entanglements have already killed two right whales. While the 2021 calving season saw the largest number of right whales born since 2015, the 17 new births still fell short of the two dozen new whales that scientists say are necessary to restore the species. 

Still, the whales have recovered before. Population estimates in the 1980s found only around 270 whales off our coast. Strict conservation measures put in place to minimize ship strikes, then the primary cause of right whale deaths, alongside other conservation efforts allowed the population to start recovering, peaking at around 500 in 2010. 

“We can save this species,” said Blackledge. “Right whales have come back before when we’ve taken action. We have some of the strongest endangered species protections in the world--it’s time for Secretary Raimondo to use them to bring right whales back from the brink.”