Advocates File Suit to Protect Whales

Defenders of Wildlife, The Humane Society of the United States, and Ocean Conservancy on June 26 filed new litigation to force the National Marine Fisheries Service to require ships to slow down in certain areas to avoid fatal collisions with critically imperiled right whales, according to a press release.

The action comes two years after the agency proposed regulations needed to ensure the continued survival of the right whale and a full year after it promised to finalize those regulations.

Jonathan R. Lovvorn, vice president of animal protection litigation for The Humane Society, said, "Right whales are literally being run into the ground by the commercial shipping industry. We would prefer to work cooperatively with the administration to save this species, but with less than 400 remaining right whales, they can't afford to wait for any more broken promises."

The lawsuit seeks to have the Fisheries Service either complete the rulemaking process it began in 2006 or implement speed restrictions on an interim basis until the rulemaking is complete. It has been seven years since the Fisheries Service acknowledged that "the loss of even a single individual may contribute to the extinction of the species," and four years since the agency issued an "Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking," announcing its intention to slow and reroute ships in right whale habitat. Since then, no fewer than 10 right whales have been reported dead. The proposed rule is being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget.

In order to reduce the threat of ship-related deaths, the leading cause of death for the species, scientists have determined that vessels should travel at 10 knots within right whale habitat, when whales are present.

The North Atlantic right whale has yet to recover to healthy populations despite the protections of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The species is found in the waters off the East Coast, where shipping lanes crisscross and thousands of ships travel to Atlantic ports. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the leading human-related causes of right whale injuries and death.