May 12, 2019

We can still save the North Atlantic right whale

Originally published by CommonWealth Magazine.

Seismic testing is the latest threat to endangered species.

NOW MAY BE our last chance to save the North Atlantic right whale from extinction.

The North Atlantic right whale population once dominated the Atlantic Ocean with numbers likely in the tens of thousands, but today, only about 400 remain. In the 1700s, whalers prized these marine mammals for their fatty blubber, making them the “right whale” to harvest for oil and baleen. By the time whaling was outlawed in 1935, the species was decimated.

More than 80 years later, the North Atlantic right whale is still struggling to recover. Yesterday’s threat of whaling has transitioned to today’s new dangers in the form of ship collisions and fishing line entanglements, which are responsible for more than half of documented right whale deaths. As fishing communities, scientists, and the government team up to combat the dangers the right whale faces today, additional risks in the form of seismic airgun blasting, used to find offshore oil and gas reserves, could further threaten right whale recovery in the immediate future.

Some may wonder why it’s important to save a species from extinction. The more scientists learn about ecosystems, the more they understand how complex, sometimes subtle, interconnections between species contribute to the Earth’s habitability. The North Atlantic right whale is no exception. By virtue of their feeding habits and their range from Florida to Canada, right whales fertilize the entire marine food chain and support the marine productivity upon which robust and economically valuable fisheries depend. This species is also an important “canary in the coal mine,” providing scientists, managers, and policymakers early warning cues on how to more effectively manage and protect other species, ecosystems, and habitats impacted by warming and acidification of today’s changing oceans.

We are at a crossroads, and in our hands lies the fate of the last of the North Atlantic right whales. Bringing a species back from the brink of extinction is a complex problem, but we are committed to finding a solution. Evidence shows this species is capable of recovery, but we must act swiftly.

We may seem an unlikely trio: a Marine, a sheriff, and the CEO of one of the nation’s leading research and conservation aquariums. The two of us who serve in Congress are from different parties, and we live about as far apart on the East Coast as possible.

But we are united by a desire to protect our communities, our country, and our Earth. From Florida to Massachusetts, the livelihoods of millions of people and millions more animals depend on clean water and healthy ecosystems.

That’s why we joined together to introduce and advocate for the SAVE Right Whales Act, a bill that would invest $5 million annually in efforts to restore the North Atlantic right whale population. We are proud to be joined by diverse partners, including the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, SeaWorld, the Humane Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Defenders of Wildlife, who support the SAVE Right Whales Act and other efforts to protect the North Atlantic right whale. It is our hope that this bipartisan bill will empower coastal communities to develop and implement creative solutions that help the North Atlantic right whale fully recover.

It’s also why we are leading the push to prevent seismic testing from coming to the Atlantic.

In this mission to save the North Atlantic right whale, we find good reason to be hopeful. This year, seven calves were spotted in the North Atlantic right whale’s calving grounds off northeast Florida’s coast.

On Sunday, thousands of people gathered at the New England Aquarium for the New England Right Whale Festival. They were celebrating this good news and the whales’ arrival to the region from Florida.

Last Wednesday, we gained another reason to celebrate: Republicans and Democrats on the House of Representative’s Committee on Natural Resources worked together and passed the SAVE Right Whales Act out of committee on Wednesday. Next stop is the House floor for a full vote. We urge Congress to pass The Save Right Whales Act and send it to the President’s desk as fast as possible.

The future of these young calves and the 400 other right whales in the Atlantic as well as fishing economies up and down the East Coast are counting on collective action. Let’s unite and bring this iconic animal back from the brink.

Seth Moulton represents Massachusetts 6th congressional district and John Rutherford Florida’s 4th congressional district in the US House of Representatives. Vikki Spruill is the president and CEO of the New England Aquarium.