Grijalva Introduces Bill to Protect Critically Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales
Washington, D.C. – Today, House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) introduced the Restoring Effective Science-based Conservation Under Environmental Laws Protecting Whales Act (RESCUE Whales Act) to repeal language passed in December’s FY2023 omnibus funding package that significantly threatens the survival and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale.
“The language passed into law in the omnibus poses an existential threat to the dwindling North Atlantic right whale population,” said Grijalva. “It undermines the science-based protections of both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, while also ignoring real solutions like ropeless gear, which we worked hard to secure $20 million in funding for in the omnibus. We must move quickly to pass this bill and put the omnibus funding to use by helping fisheries transition to safer ropeless gear as quickly as possible.”
North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with fewer than 340 individuals surviving. Vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements in American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries have largely been responsible for a 30 percent decline in the right whale population since 2011, its lowest number in two decades. The National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) declared an Unusual Mortality Event for the North American right whale beginning in 2017.
In September 2021, NMFS issued a rule to reduce lethal entanglements of right whales. However, a federal district judge later determined that the rule was insufficient under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and ordered a new rule be in place by Dec. 9, 2024.
In December 2022, last-minute language added to the FY 2023 omnibus funding package reversed the judge’s ruling, keeping the drastically insufficient September 2021 rule in place through 2028. By delaying new rulemaking, the omnibus language undermines the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, circumvents the judicial process, and makes extinction of the North Atlantic right whale even more likely. The language also poses a threat to fisheries; if whale death trends continue or accelerate, NMFS may have to close significant areas to fishing as early as 2029.
Transitioning American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries to “ropeless” gear is a commonsense solution that can significantly reduce the number of right whale entanglements, without negatively impacting catch numbers. Then-Chair Grijalva worked to secure $20 million in the FY 2023 omnibus funding package to help the lobster industry transition to ropeless gear.
Original cosponsors of the RESCUE Whales Act include Water, Wildlife and Fisheries Subcommittee Ranking Member Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D-CNMI), Federal Lands Subcommittee Ranking Member Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.).
The RESCUE Whales Act is endorsed by Oceana, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Earthjustice.
Additional Background and Timeline
- In 1970, the North Atlantic right whale (NARW) was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
- In 1972, the NARW was designated as depleted and as a strategic stock under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
- Since 1997, U.S. fisheries in state and federal waters have been required to comply with the regulations contained in the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to reduce mortalities and serious injuries. With these protections, the NARW saw a modest recovery until 2011. Since 2011, however, NARW abundance has declined by 30 percent and reached its lowest population in two decades.
- In 2017, high levels of observed mortalities and serious injuries due to entanglements and vessel strikes led NMFS to declare an Unusual Mortality Event for the NARW.
- In September 2021, NMFS issued an amended Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan rule to attempt to reduce lethal entanglements in the American lobster and Jonah crab fishery. However, the rule only halved the lethal entanglement risk to NARWs, making it insufficient to be considered compliant with the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.
- In July 2022, a federal district judge decided that the September 2021 rule violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act by failing to implement measures that would, within six months of implementation, bring North Atlantic right whale mortalities and serious injuries in the Federal and State American lobster and Jonah crab fishery to statutorily-mandated levels.
- In November 2022, the federal district judge issued an order allowing the September 2021 rule to temporarily remain in effect while NMFS finalized a new, more effective Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan Amendment by no later than Dec. 9, 2024.
- Language passed in the FY2023 omnibus funding package nullified the November 2022 judicial order. The language establishes the September 2021 rule as sufficient in protecting the NARW and that the continued Federal and State authorizations of the American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries are in full compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act through December 31, 2028.
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