Right Whales Tangled up in Red Tape

by Michelle Frey

August 27, 2008

The North Atlantic right whale is very rare—there are only about 300 in existence today. Recent news that these magnificent whales may finally get a helping hand highlights the sad, sad state of the right whales. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials released a final analysis to slow down ship speeds and use shipping routes that avoid whale grounds along the U.S. east coast where the whales live.

But, what does this “final analysis” really do for the whales? Well, nothing right now.  In my mind it is like being engaged. There is the “promise” to get married, but also the possibility for the couple to go their separate ways. And, just how long will the engagement last? NOAA has promised to save the right whales, but how long will their “engagement” last? Will they elope and have the regulations enacted tomorrow, or will it drag on and on for months or years?

Did I mention that there were only 300 right whales left on the planet? Right whales have been fighting for increased protections for years and years. I remember going to a public testimony, probably about two or three years ago on this very same issue. NOAA had an open comment period and I was on hand to present thousands of public petitions in support of saving the right whales. But, sadly, there haven’t been any increased protections—just the promise that some day there might be. Is this good enough?


dead rigth whale
A 44-foot right whale washed up on a beach in Massachusetts on March 11th of this year. A ship strike is the probable cause of death.

Oh, and if these regulations do get implemented the U.S. government made some exemptions. The U.S. Navy is exempt from these rules about slowing down. And, the regulations will only be in place for five years—that is unless another round of “red tape” and bureaucratic analysis takes place.

While the government continues to use every stall tactic in the book, right whales continue to swim in harms way. Ship strikes are the largest known cause of death for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, particularly baby calves.

I have been lucky to see two right whales in my lifetime. One was during a whale watching adventure in New England (where I got insanely sunburned) and the other is a “squishy” toy that a colleague got for me. I hope my children will be able to see real right whales and not just the toy sitting up on my desk.


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