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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The North Atlantic Right Whale: Federal Management Issues

Eugene H. Buck
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Kori Calvert
Information Research Specialist

Federal management of the North Atlantic right whale highlights the complexities of how two federal lawsthe Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)—are implemented in concert to benefit this species. The North Atlantic right whale is protected under provisions of both ESA and MMPA. Congress has expressed interest in conservation efforts, and federal appropriations for North Atlantic right whale research often are a focus of constituent interest.

Congressional funding for NMFS research on this species and its recovery increased from $250,000 in FY1997 to a peak of $12.45 million in FY2004. Since FY2006, funding levels have ranged between $7.78 million and $8.63 million. Controversy has arisen over NMFS proposed spending of these funds because of (1) reported differences between NMFS spending proposals and the recommendations of independent scientists, conservationists, and industry; (2) the level of salary allocations within NMFS; and (3) the timeliness of NMFS contracting procedures.

Unlike many other whale species, the endangered North Atlantic right whale population has not recovered after commercial whaling ceased. Despite U.S. efforts under ESA and MMPA, the population declined by about 2% per year through much of the 1990s before experiencing growth since 2000. Current population estimates vary, with the Marine Mammal Commission’s 2009 Annual Report to Congress (November 2010) indicating a population in excess of 400 individuals.

Direct human-influenced mortality and serious injury of right whales come primarily from whales being struck by large ships and entangled in commercial fishing gear. These human-influenced mortalities were compounded in the 1990s by particularly low calf production, possibly caused by insufficient prey, disease, endocrine disruption from pollution, or other unknown factors.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Coast Guard have implemented measures to reduce harmful human interactions with right whales. Following a number of lawsuits beginning in 1994 that alleged various violations of federal law, actions were undertaken by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, NMFS, and the Coast Guard to increase the protection afforded North Atlantic right whales. Meetings between shipping industry representatives and NMFS continue in an effort to identify management options for reducing ship strikes. NMFS has issued ship operating requirements, including recommended routes and maximum allowable speeds, as well as restrictions on allowable types of commercial fishing gear, for areas in which right whales are known to congregate. At this time, it is too early to determine the impact of these efforts.

Some proponents of the increasingly restrictive measures to increase protection for North Atlantic right whales argue that current efforts do not provide enough protection for the whales or adequately meet their biological needs; others (especially those in the shipping and commercial fishing industries) contend that these restrictions place unwarranted or unnecessary limits on industries that are already overburdened with regulations.

Date of Report: June 6, 2011
Number of Pages: 16
Order Number: RL30907
Price: $29.95

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