PORTLAND (Maine) (AP), On a breezy day in spring, scientists and conservationists conducted experiments methodically near 15 North Atlantic Right Whales, which occasionally spouted or surfaced, in a bay to the south of Boston.
The pod of adults, calves and pups represents about 4% the global population of this marine mammal which almost vanished from the planet due to decades of commercial whaling. Only a few hundred behemoths remain, which can reach 70 tons (63.5 kilograms) and feed on tiny ocean organisms.
Conservationists credit the U.S. for their continued existence, despite a decline in right whale populations. Endangered Species Act.
The landmark federal legislation, which is now 50 years old, has forced the commercial fishing and shipping industries to take significant steps to protect critically endangered whales. It has also prompted government agencies to conduct research and scientists.
David Wiley, a research ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was part of the team that tested the water near Cape Cod in late March and earlyApril for the presence a naturally-occurring chemical that might help predict where the right whales would congregate.
Wiley explained that this knowledge can be used to create new rules designed to protect whales against threats like entanglement with fishing gear or collisions with vessels. Wiley's team was busy when a right-whale was discovered entangled on Cape Cod Bay.
He said, 'They'll be extinct within our lifetimes if we do nothing.' My research aims to protect animals such as right whales and humpbacks whales.
The Endangered Species Act protects a number of whale species, including blue, fin, and sperm. Since 1973, some whale species, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, have been on the endangered list. Other marine mammals such as seal species and ocean dwelling animals like sea turtles are also protected by the law.
The right whale is one of the few animals that has brought about more change in marine industries. Conservationists claim the survival of this species, which number around 340 globally, is a testament to its importance.
'While their numbers continue to drop, I am convinced that they would not be around today without the Endangered Species act,' said Regina Asmutis Silvia, executive Director of Massachusetts-based Whale & Dolphin Conservation USA.
As federal regulators create new protections to protect whales and other marine animals in decline, the fishing and shipping industries who have been impacted by conservation laws for decades are now preparing for a second round of battles for their own interest.
Beth Casoni is the executive director of Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association. She said that the industry supports the bill. She said that fishermen need to be able to follow reasonable rules, and some of the recent restrictions on fishing are too extreme.
In recent years, disputes over the correct way to apply the Act have brought the industry more and more into court. Casoni stated that "we need to be realistic in our approach to environmental management." It is extremely expensive for the industry to continue fighting the litigation brought by environmental groups.
The maritime industry is subject to many restrictions in order to protect rare whales. The rules govern how fast commercial vessels can travel, and where they can fish. Slow zones, protected zones, and restrictions on fishing gear are all part of the rules.
The act permanently protects thousands of square kilometers of ocean habitat, giving animals a sanctuary from human disturbance. The act has led to innovations such as ropeless fishermanship, which is designed to prevent whales becoming entangled. The act was a major factor in the development of nets that have escape hatches, which are used to protect turtles during shrimp fishing along the Gulf Coast.
The act also required changes in the way that fisheries for valuable species of seafood, like scallops and groundfish were conducted. The act brought on board observers to ensure that fishermen followed the rules, and has banned fishing in areas where there are vulnerable species.
Janet Coit is the assistant administrator of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service which regulates commercial fisheries. She said, "I think it's an important tool for driving technological innovation and protecting a wide range of species." The law has been tested over time.
In the coming years, protections under the law will be expanded. NOAA is drafting new, broader fishing regulations on the East Coast to reduce the risk that whales are injured or killed by entanglements with gear. The agency is also considering imposing a larger speed restriction zone that will affect many shippers.
New protections for endangered whales will be coming to the West Coast. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has approved a U.S. proposal which will take effect this summer. It would increase restrictions on vessel traffic in order to provide more unhindered sea for endangered whales like blues and fins.
Lobster fishermen have pledged to fight against new fishing restrictions off the East Coast that many believe will drive the industry out. David Cousens said that the proposed restrictions require new ropeless gear, which is not widely available.
The technology is not yet there. Cousens stated that common sense should prevail over unrealistic dreams.
Whales are most at risk from vessel strikes and entanglements. Shippers, who are concerned about compliance, have also resisted the expansion of vessel restrictions, according to Kathy Metcalf of the Chamber of Shipping of America.
Metcalf stated that he was trying to put in place some reasonable restrictions so as to still be able serve people who were waiting for their Nike shoes, fuel oil, or whatever they needed and to still provide a measure of animal protection.
The plight and extinction of whales has long been a concern of conservationists. It was this plight that inspired the Endangered Species Act. During the commercial whaling period, many species were decimated by being hunted and killed for oil and meat.
Gray whales, which range from Mexico to Alaska, are often hailed as one of the greatest successes since the Act was passed in 1994, after the populations had recovered. After recovery, the U.S. Government has also removed most populations humpbacks whales from its list.
The Endangered Species act has legal implications. Charles 'Stormy Mayo', senior scientist of the Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, Massachusetts which is dedicated to preserving marine animals, said that it was a tangible result. The Endangered Species act has raised our awareness of rare species.
Other species, such as the North Atlantic Right Whale, have taken longer to recover. Scientists say that the whale population is declining in part due to climate-related ocean warming, which is forcing the animals out of protected zones in search of food. About 30% of the population has been lost since 2010.
Michael Moore, the director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Marine Mammal Centre in Massachusetts, stated that the rapid decline is proof that the act cannot save an animal when it's not used aggressively. Moore stated that 'that level of collapse cannot be seen as success'.
Gib Brogan is the fisheries campaign manager at Oceana.
Brogan stated that 'the Endangered Species act is a big, heavy hammer that has forced necessary, and urgent, action to ensure that these species' needs are met in the management of fisheries, as well as other areas, where they might otherwise be overlooked.
This report was contributed by Associated Press videojournalist Rodrique Ngowi, and Robert F. Bukaty, a photographer from Plymouth Massachusetts.
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