Right whales entangled by politics
To researchers’ chagrin, measures that might save more of the rare animals have been held up by the White House.
SAINT JOHN, N.B., CANADA
At the New Brunswick Museum, the right whale skeleton is a hit. Children gaze up in awe at the 40-foot-long assembly, which hangs from the ceiling with dinosaurlike grandeur. One boy points out to his mother that she could fit the family car inside its ribcage.Skip to next paragraph
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But for right whale researchers, this is more than a skeleton: It’s the remains of Delilah, a female whale they’d studied for more than a decade, observing her courtships, the parenting of her first calf, and, sadly, her death in 1993 off Grand Manan Island, 50 miles southwest of here.
“When you study these animals, it definitely gets personal,” says Laurie Murison of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station. She saw the whale with her calf two weeks before she was struck by a passing ship. “You lose too many that just shouldn’t die,” she says.
The North Atlantic right whale is one of the most endangered species on Earth, with a population of fewer than 400. Slow, docile, and rich in oils, whalers saw them as the “right” whale to target until the 18th century, when they became too rare to seek out. Despite being protected from hunting for more than a century, it remains on the verge of extinction, with far too many being struck by ships or fatally entangled in fishing gear.
“Basically it’s a political decision,” says Michael J. Moore of the Woods Hole (Mass.) Oceanographic Institution, who does forensic autopsies of whales. “There are a lot of things we could be doing to help these whales that we apparently are not willing to do.”
For the past quarter century, scientists have been struggling to understand and protect the species, deploying boats and planes, satellite tags and listening buoys, and even dogs specially trained to sniff out whale poop for analysis.
In the process, the North Atlantic right has become one of the most thoroughly documented species in the world, with an estimated 90 percent of its individuals cataloged, often including their relationships to one another. The scientists’ findings have put them in a collision course with lobstermen, shipping firms, and the White House, which is accused of obstructing measures to protect the whales from ship strikes.
Scientists have found that preventing the deaths of just two female right whales each year could make the difference between survival and extinction. The National Marine Fisheries Service has drawn up new rules to protect them.
While new regulations will come into effect next year requiring many lobstermen to use only nonbuoyant lines with their traps, rules to prevent ship strikes have been blocked by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The rules require ships to reduce speed to 10 knots when traveling in places and at times when the whales are likely to be present. Research has shown that whales can avoid ships moving at this speed.
But an OMB review of the rule, which normally takes 90 days, has lasted more than 18 months. In April, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California wrote the OMB urging them to release the rule without further delay. He wrote that the “delay appears to be due to baseless objections raised by White House officials including officials in the Office of the Vice President” and noted that Executive Order 12866 required the agency to complete their review within 120 days.