Groups call on NMFS to take immediate action to protect the North Atlantic right whale from extinction

Monday, January 17, 2005
Yarmouth Port, MA
IFAW (the International Fund for Animal Welfare – www.ifaw.org), the International Wildlife Coalition (IWC- www.iwc.org) and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS-www.wdcs.org) today called on the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to immediately undertake aggressive efforts to protect North Atlantic right whales. In the last six weeks, four right whales have been found dead, three of them mature females and, at least two of them, pregnant. This alarming rate of right whale mortality threatens the entire species with extinction. The right whale is one of the most endangered mammals on earth, and with a population numbering less than 350 individuals, each death is significant.
On November 24, a 49-foot pregnant right whale was killed off the Virginia coast after it was apparently struck by a Navy Vessel on November 17th.  This pregnant female and her full term fetus both bled to death. In December, a dead right whale was found 86 miles east of Nantucket, Massachusetts. On January 10, another right whale, a 45-foot female named Bolo, was found dead 75 miles east of Nantucket. On January 12, another female right whale named Lucky, was found 15 miles east of Cumberland Island in Georgia. Lucky, named for scars she received from a previous ship-strike, was pregnant with her first known calf.

“To say the last 12 months have been devastating to right whales is an understatement,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, biologist for the IWC and WDCS.  “The incoming Secretary of Commerce must take immediate action or else leave a legacy of overseeing the extinction of a majestic species.” 

The most significant threats to right whales, and the greatest source of mortality, are shipping and fishing activities. Shipping and fishing are prevalent in the species’ breeding, feeding, and migratory corridors along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. About 72% of whales bare scars from entanglements in fishing line. Incredibly, six right whales were reported entangled in 2004 with four of those animals trapped in the gear since 2002. Entanglement in fishing line can quickly result in death as the line may often become embedded in the whales flesh, leading to infection, or starvation as the gear prevents the feeding, diving and other life activities of the whale. One to three right whales are killed by ship strikes annually, and an unknown number of animals lost at sea.   
 
Under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is obligated to protect the species from harmful human activities. The NMFS acknowledges that if a single North Atlantic right whale is killed by anthropogenic causes each year, the entire species may go extinct. In last 12 months alone, at least five right whales were found dead, including three full-term, pregnant females believed killed by ship strikes. The tragic loss of these five animals does not even take into consideration the number of right whales that may have been struck and lost at sea, or entangled in fishing gear.

NMFS has still not issued its proposed fishing regulations to minimize the risk of entanglements (scheduled for release in March of 2004) and there are currently no mandates requiring ships to alter course or change speed in right whale habitats. 

“Each death is a tragic loss,” said Erin Heskett, Senior Program Officer for IFAW. “NMFS needs to immediately implement shipping regulations, such as speed restrictions and re-routing before this entire species disappears right before our eyes.  This is not a question of waiting until we have more information; if there was ever a case for precaution, this is it.”

About IWC (The International Wildlife Coalition)
IWC is a US based wildlife protection organization founded to challenge the needless deaths and abuses to wild animals world-wide.  IWC has representatives in the US, Canada, Kenya, and Brazil.

About WDCS (The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society)
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society is an international charity dedicated to the protection of whales, dolphins and their environment.  WDCS maintains offices in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Argentina and Germany.

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