The Federal Government is Facing a Lawsuit Over Delays in Right Whale Protections

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The Federal Government is Facing a Lawsuit Over Delays in Right Whale Protections
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Conservationists have filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service over delays in increasing boating speed restrictions that would protect the near-extinct right whales. The plaintiffs in this lawsuit include the Center For Biological Diversity, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Conservation Law Foundation.

Right whales are one of the world’s most endangered large whale species.

The North Atlantic right whales’ territory extends from Maine to Florida, where the population has dropped from 412 to 370, making it one of the most endangered whale species in the world. Right whales are baleen whales, which means they feed by filtering ocean water through their mouth. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the biggest threats faced by these whales include the following:

  • Entanglement in fishing gear
  • Vessel strikes
  • Habitat degradation
  • Ocean noise
  • Climate change
  • Changes in distribution and availability of prey
  • Small population size

These whales were hunted to the point of extinction in the late 1800s, and although they are currently protected from hunting, entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes present a significant danger to this already dwindling species.

Marine life advocates point out that 12 whales have been struck by vessels since 2013.

These conservationists have been filing petitions for additional protections for these whales’ spaces since 2012; rather than being rejected, these petitions have been largely ignored, a delay which conservationists believe has unnecessarily allowed for more of these endangered whales to be seriously injured and even killed by preventable human activity. Although the government began imposing boat-speed restrictions off certain parts of the east coast during the time of year when right whales are common in that area, conservationists argue that these restrictions are not sufficient.

The lawsuit is seeking a federal order to force the National Marine Fisheries Service to issue a decision on these petitions.

More than eight years after these petitions have been filed, the conservation groups involved in this litigation are done waiting for an answer that seemed like it would never come. The lawsuit demands that a federal judge force the National Marine Fisheries Service to reply to their petitions for increased protections with an official decision on the matter. Protections sought on behalf of these whales include:

  • Speed limits imposed on vessels smaller than 65 feet
  • Expanded speed-limit zones
  • Mandatory reduced speeds rather than voluntary

In 2020, The Humane Society won a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to adhere to the Endangered Species Act.

Along with the significant threat posed to these whales by speeding vessels, entanglement in lobster fishing gear is responsible for a great deal of harm to these marine mammals. The Human Society alleged that the federal government was not doing its part in enforcing measures to prevent right whales from becoming tangled in lobster fishing lines. They won this lawsuit in 2020 with the promise of protections to be fully in place by May of 2021. Considering the success of this recent and closely related lawsuit, the likelihood of success for the right whale vessel speed lawsuit is looking probable but will depend on the decision of the federal judge hearing the case.

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