NOAA to Reduce Right Whale Aerial Surveys

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For Immediate Release: Thursday, September 1, 2020
Contact: Kyla Bennett (508) 230-9933; Kirsten Stade

NOAA to Reduce Right Whale Aerial Surveys

Eliminating Targeted Surveys Hampers Ability to Spot Whales in Distress


Boston — A new National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration report recommends a reduction in the most effective means for monitoring critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead of maintaining targeted surveys to identify individual whales and assist with disentanglements, NOAA wants to return to broad-scale surveys, which will identify far fewer whales.

This critical shift is signaled in “North Atlantic Right Whale Monitoring and Surveillance: Report and Recommendations of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Expert Working Group,” posted quietly by NOAA on August 12th. The report calls for “Maintaining or increasing vessel survey effort to collect individual health data and replace aerial surveys for collecting individual identification photos whenever possible.” The stated rationale is “the danger of aerial surveys.”

“Targeted aerial surveys are the best way to identify individual whales, to assess their health, and to monitor entanglements, all of which are critical to their protection,” stated Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett of PEER, which is calling for a congressional hearing into NOAA’s avoiding direct steps to forestall the first modern extinction of a large whale species. “Aerial surveys involve risk, as the fatal crash of a right whale survey flight in 2003 demonstrated. But the research community learned from that tragedy, and NOAA’s Air Operations Command’s right whale survey program has an unblemished safety record.”

PEER is also criticizing the report because it –

  • Was not written by North Atlantic right whale researchers inside and outside of NOAA;
  • Ignores the fact that the majority of identifications come from aircraft, the most cost-effective, efficient and reliable way to get the necessary data on right whales; and
  • It appears to value data modelling as a substitute for direct action to save this Critically Endangered species.

This report comes out as a new court ruling blocks a lawsuit to require NOAA to act to reduce entanglements with fishing gear, principally lobster lines, a significant cause of right whale mortality. In his August 10, 2020 order, District Court Judge Lance Walker concluded –

“North Atlantic right whales continue to suffer a significant number of entanglements, …[but] most right whale entanglements cannot be attributed to a specific fishery either because the gear is not recovered or because the identifying portion of the gear (i.e., the permit numbers on the buoy or the traps or nets) is lost when the whales break the gear during the entanglement.”

“This latest report rationalizes continued NOAA inaction and allows the agency to use a new excuse of data limitations even though this species is Critically Endangered and on the brink of extinction,” added Bennett, a biologist and attorney formerly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “In a biological sense, NOAA is fiddling while Rome burns.”



Read PEER letter calling for congressional hearings

See the new NOAA report

View the latest court ruling

Look at NOAA avoidance of steps to address entanglements and ship strikes

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