Column: Right whale, wrong decisions

In this March 28, 2018 AP file photo, a North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth.

There is no second chance with extinction. So why is it taking the National Marine Fisheries Service so long to implement protective measures for the endangered North Atlantic right whale?

The species was considered endangered in 1970, three years before the Endangered Species Act was legislated. For the past 50 years it has been a constant struggle to fulfill the obligations of this law and provide adequate protection for its recovery. Four years ago, NOAA declared the drastic increase in right whale deaths an “unusual mortality event” and supposedly a concentrated effort was to be made to reverse the trend and save the species. We’re still waiting. The act is clear on what needs to be done, but decisions being made do not uphold the law.

Instead of carrying out its congressional legislative mandate, the Fisheries Service has repeatedly authorized actions harmful to continued existence of the whale. As a result, we have witnessed lawsuits and legal complaints against the agency for not doing the job entrusted to it. Among the claims made are: making false and misleading statements, omitting scientific research findings and recommendations from its own staff, falsely implying a consensus of scientists that reopening of a restricted fishing area wouldn’t adversely affect the species, refusing to close certain areas to reduce entanglements, controlling information being released to the public and, most importantly, granting priority to the lobster fishery responsible for the majority of whale deaths. Downplaying effects of fishery activities on the species, inadequately addressing ship strikes and failure to notify ships to reduce their speed are other accusations. These actions violate the legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act and reflect poorly on the agency, its mission, integrity and employees.

Who is making these decisions? Who is rejecting findings of its own research staff? Why aren’t critical feeding areas of the whale being closed to fishing? Why isn’t the number of vertical lobster trap buoy lines being reduced? The Fisheries Service has a legal and ethical obligation to faithfully execute the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. NOAA and the Fisheries Service are responsible for the stewardship of the nation’s ocean resources and their habitat. These are public trust resources, not profit pits for private interest exploitation. The agency and civil service staff serve the law and citizens first, not that of an industry.

Recent court rulings found the Fisheries Service guilty of ignoring its obligations to consult with its own staff experts and write a “biological opinion” as required by Section 7 of the act. This is a routine procedural requirement for any action or project that could impact an endangered species, so why wasn’t it done? Section 9 of the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits a taking without filing of an “exception,” is another serious omission. Fishing operations minus compliance of these sections are essentially guilty of illegal “incidental takes.” How many whale deaths have gone unrecorded because of this negligence? The citizen’s complaint was not seeking to end all fishing activity, just a temporary concession of certain areas of shelf waters so an endangered species could safely feed. In failing to complete these requirements the agency disrespects its own mandate.

If Navy “training” in the Pacific Ocean arena violated laws met to protect whales and other marine mammals, why aren’t fishing activities and destructive gear usage treated the same way? Why can’t the agency charged with upholding provisions of the Endangered Species Act carry out its responsibilities? Nothing in the Endangered Species Act gives precedence to a fishery over the law nor grants exemptions from its intent and purpose.

The Fisheries Service needs to support its own scientific staff and do its job, as unpopular a task it may be.

Gib Chase is a retired marine biologist. He lives in Northborough.


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