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Lawsuit filed to save North Atlantic Right Whales from death in fishing gear

Conservation and animal-protection groups today sued the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to prevent critically endangered North Atlantic right whales from becoming ensnared by lobster trap lines and other commercial fishing gear. Scientists have found that entanglement is the leading cause of death for right whales, which have suffered an alarming die-off over the past year, overwhelming recovery efforts.

“Right whales could disappear forever if they keep getting tangled up and killed in fishing gear,” said Kristen Monsell a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Trump administration has a legal and moral responsibility to prevent these amazing animals from suffering more deadly, painful entanglements. Federal officials have to act now, before it’s too late.”

North Atlantic right whales are one of the world’s most imperiled mammals, with about 450 alive today. At least 17 right whales died in 2017, representing nearly 4 percent of the entire population. Many of those deaths were caused by entanglements in fishing gear or whales being struck by ships, although some investigations are still underway. Even before these tragic deaths, scientists found that the population has been declining since 2010.

“The law is clear: the federal government must act, and act immediately, to save the right whale from extinction,” said Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “We don’t need more scientific research—we already know that fishing gear kills and injures whales at an unsustainable rate. It’s time to implement effective and innovative solutions to end this deadly problem.”

When whales get tangled in fishing gear, they can drown immediately or die over an extended time period from injuries, infections, or starvation. Entanglements can also sap whales of strength and decrease reproductive success. From 2010 to 2016, entanglement-related deaths accounted for 85 percent of right whale deaths for which the source cause could be determined. In the 2017 calving season, only five right whale calves were born.

“Scientists have warned that a continuation of the current rate of deaths will lead to the functional extinction of the species within about 20 years,” said Sharon Young, field director for marine wildlife protection for The Humane Society of the United States. “The National Marine Fisheries Service must properly examine the American lobster fishery’s contribution to this horrifying death toll, and must manage the fishery to protect this critically endangered species.”   

Today’s lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., alleges that federal management of the American lobster fishery violates the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The lawsuit seeks to force the agency to sufficiently examine the fishery’s impacts on North Atlantic right whales and adopt additional measures to prevent more entanglements in the future. The lobster fishery is the most active fixed-gear fishery in the northeastern United States.

Media Contacts:

Kristen Monsell: 914.806.3467; kmonsell@biologicaldiversity.org 


Haley McKey: 202.772.0247; hmckey@defenders.org


Kirsten Peek: 301.548.7793; kpeek@humanesociety.org