Washington, DC—The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) is appalled that the omnibus spending bill unveiled by Congress today includes a last-minute policy rider that will all but ensure the extinction of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
With only 340 right whales remaining and a dwindling number of reproductive females, Maine lawmakers pushed for a provision in the spending legislation that would give the lobster fishing industry six more years to avoid key conservation measures aimed at preventing right whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear. AWI, joined by dozens of animal welfare and conservation organizations across the country, fought to prevent the rider, led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), from being included in the spending bill.
“This is an unprecedented end-run around two of the country’s most important wildlife protection laws—the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA),” said Susan Millward, AWI’s executive director. “This 11th hour deal undermines hopes for the right whale’s survival and ultimate recovery. Sadly, it comes at a time when our nation is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the MMPA, a bedrock environmental law that has enabled many vulnerable marine populations to recover from the brink of extinction.”
The rider is also at odds with a court ruling in July, which found that the federal government had violated both the ESA and the MMPA by not doing enough to reduce lethal threats to right whales.
North Atlantic right whales are extremely vulnerable to entanglement in the vertical buoy lines used in lobster and crab trapping gear. This can lead to drowning, reduced mobility, and, in some cases, a long, painful death from starvation. Each year, an estimated four right whales are killed by gear in northeast lobster and Jonah crab fisheries—six times higher than biologically sustainable rates.
Despite this evidence, the omnibus rider would lock in place for the next six years a scientifically flawed rule adopted by the US Department of Commerce’s NOAA Fisheries, the 2021 Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. The rule, based on an outdated right whale population estimate, would achieve at most a 69% reduction in risk of right whale mortalities and serious injuries versus the more than 90% precautionary risk reduction recommended by the Marine Mammal Commission. The rule also emphasizes a costly transition for fishers to weaker rope.
If passed, the omnibus would fund the government through September 2023. While efforts to block the dangerous rider were unsuccessful, a modified version of the Right Whale Coexistence Act, as well as additional funding for research, monitoring and compliance efforts was included following an overwhelming outcry from animal protection and conservation groups. While the establishment of this grant program has been a top priority for AWI and other groups, the inclusion of Senator Collins’ rider sets a frightening precedent for the future of endangered species.
Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
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The Animal Welfare Institute (awionline.org) is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.