Today, House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) introduced the Restoring Effective Science-based Conservation Under Environmental Laws Protecting Whales Act (RESCUE Whales Act) to repeal language passed in December's FY2023 omnibus funding package that significantly threatens the survival and recovery of the North Atlantic right whale.
"The language passed into law in the omnibus poses an existential threat to the dwindling North Atlantic right whale population," said Grijalva. "It undermines the science-based protections of both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, while also ignoring real solutions like ropeless gear, which we worked hard to secure $20 million in funding for in the omnibus. We must move quickly to pass this bill and put the omnibus funding to use by helping fisheries transition to safer ropeless gear as quickly as possible."
North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with fewer than 340 individuals surviving. Vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements in American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries have largely been responsible for a 30 percent decline in the right whale population since 2011, its lowest number in two decades. The National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) declared an Unusual Mortality Event for the North American right whale beginning in 2017.
In September 2021, NMFS issued a rule to reduce lethal entanglements of right whales. However, a federal district judge later determined that the rule was insufficient under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and ordered a new rule be in place by Dec. 9, 2024.
In December 2022, last-minute language added to the FY 2023 omnibus funding package reversed the judge's ruling, keeping the drastically insufficient September 2021 rule in place through 2028. By delaying new rulemaking, the omnibus language undermines the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, circumvents the judicial process, and makes extinction of the North Atlantic right whale even more likely. The language also poses a threat to fisheries; if whale death trends continue or accelerate, NMFS may have to close significant areas to fishing as early as 2029.
Transitioning American lobster and Jonah crab fisheries to "ropeless" gear is a commonsense solution that can significantly reduce the number of right whale entanglements, without negatively impacting catch numbers. Then-Chair Grijalva worked to secure $20 million in the FY 2023 omnibus funding package to help the lobster industry transition to ropeless gear.