ELLSWORTH — The U.S. Senate last week moved a step closer to providing substantial financial assistance to efforts aimed at protecting endangered North Atlantic right whales.
Scientists warn that, with a population of only about 400 animals, the giant mammals face a real threat of extinction. The whales have experienced a high rate of mortality in the past few years resulting mostly from ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear. The population also has had a low rate of reproduction.
Last Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation passed the “SAVE Right Whales Act” (the Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales Act of 2019) and referred it to the full Senate for action.
The bill is identical to legislation now awaiting action in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The legislative activity comes at a time when right whale conservation is front and center with federal and Maine fisheries regulators and in the federal courts.
The NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has proposed a set of rules that would, among other things, require Maine lobstermen to reduce the number of vertical buoy lines they use by 50 percent.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) is in the process of developing its own proposal to submit to NMFS this month.
In one of several active cases, a U.S. District Court judge in Washington, D.C., recently ordered NMFS to reverse a recent order opening areas around Cape Cod to gill net fishing and denied the agency’s request to delay the order until it developed comprehensive whale protection rules early next year.
The proposed legislation would require that the U.S. Department of Commerce provide financial assistance for the conservation of right whales and, in addition, conduct surveys of plankton on an ongoing basis using a continuous plankton recorder. Both mandates are expressly “subject to the availability of funds” and both the Senate and House bills authorize the appropriation of $5 million for the program beginning in fiscal year 2019 and continuing through FY 2029.
As proposed, the legislation would allow funding for whale conservation projects submitted by a variety of applicants including state and tribal governments, research institutions and nonprofit groups “with expertise required” for whale conservation. Funding applications must demonstrate the “clear potential” of the proposed project “to contribute to the conservation” of the endangered whales.
Applicants would be responsible for 25 percent of the project cost, which could come in the form of in-kind contributions.
Priority for funding is to go to projects “designed to reduce the lethal and sub-lethal effects of human activities” on right whales, and especially to projects incorporating commercial fishing or shipping interests.
The bill also calls for the Commerce Department to begin a “continuous plankton recorder survey” that will “inform the conservation” of right whales.
Plankton are the principal food source for right whales and shifts in the location of plankton over the past several years have led to shifts in the location of concentrations of right whales into Canadian waters. The legislation calls for coordination with Canadian scientists and fisheries authorities to “develop a trans-boundary understanding of plankton abundance and distribution.”
As of the beginning of this week, it was unclear when the full Senate and House will take up their respective bills for consideration.