Endangered right whale protection getting an $82 million boost

North Atlantic right whales, which calve off the Georgia coast, have fewer than 350 individuals remaining
An endangered right whale named "Snow Cone" and her calf were sighted about 10 nautical miles off Cumberland Island, Ga., on Dec. 2, 2021. (Georgia DNR/taken under NOAA permit 20556)

Credit: Georgia DNR/taken under NOAA permit 20556

Credit: Georgia DNR/taken under NOAA permit 20556

An endangered right whale named "Snow Cone" and her calf were sighted about 10 nautical miles off Cumberland Island, Ga., on Dec. 2, 2021. (Georgia DNR/taken under NOAA permit 20556)

One of the most endangered whales on the planet, the North Atlantic right whale, is getting millions of dollars in new funding to help ward off the specter of extinction, the federal government announced Monday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said it will receive $82 million from President Joe Biden’s signature climate and health care law, the Inflation Reduction Act, to bolster whale protection efforts and try to help the remaining population rebound. There are thought to be fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales remaining, making them one of the rarest large whale species on Earth.

The animals have a special connection to Georgia: Each winter, females migrate from feeding grounds near Canada and the Northeast to give birth to their calves off the coasts of Georgia and Florida.

The whales are in the midst of an “unusual mortality event” that began in 2017, that has resulted in serious injuries, health problems and deaths in at least 115 individuals. NOAA said it plans to focus the funding on vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements, the animals’ main threats.

Scientists believe human-caused climate change is also contributing to the whales’ demise. As the world’s oceans warm, the distribution of the microscopic crustaceans they feed on is shifting, pushing them farther afield in their search for food and into tracts of ocean with fewer boating and fishing restrictions.

“The species has experienced a severe population decline that has underscored the urgency to take new and innovative actions for their recovery,” Janet Coit, the assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement. “This funding allows us to invest in technologies to reduce the risk of vessel strikes, increase the use of on-demand fishing gear and improve enforcement of existing federal regulations.”

Georgia wildlife biologists and other staff helped free an endangered North Atlantic right whale from most of the fishing gear it was tangled in earlier this year, a rare success story for a species facing the threat of extinction.

Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute with NOAA permit #24359

icon to expand image

Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute with NOAA permit #24359

NOAA said it will use $35.8 million for acoustic monitoring, tagging and modeling efforts to track the whales. Approximately $20 million will go to reducing vessel strikes and nearly $18 million to advance ropeless fishing gear and other technologies that help avoid entanglements. Another $5 million will help bolster regulation enforcement efforts.

Conservation groups praised the boost in whale protection funding.

“The threat of extinction for North Atlantic right whales means bold actions are needed to ensure this species survives,” said Dr. Jessica Redfern, an associate vice president at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “We applaud the Biden-Harris Administration for making these funds available for such a crucial cause.”

For years, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has worked with state, federal and private partners to survey and monitor the health of the whales when they return to the waters off the Southeast coast to calve. It’s possible that DNR could utilize new technologies advanced by the funding in the future, but DNR Wildlife Resources division spokesman Rick Lavender said he doesn’t expect the agency will receive any direct benefits from the new federal spending in the near term.

DNR’s Law Enforcement division also patrols to ensure boats comply with right whale regulations, but its spokesman, Mark McKinnon, said they have not yet heard whether they’ll receive any of the funding.

Some federal efforts to save the whales have been controversial.

There are currently speed limits for boats longer than 65 feet along parts of the East Coast during months when the whales are typically in the areas, but last year, NOAA proposed expanding the restrictions to include smaller vessels, too. NOAA also floated an expansion of the geographic boundaries of so-called “slow zones” and the length of time each year they are in effect.

The proposed rule has faced pushback from fishing and shipping interests, who argue the speed restrictions would harm business. Georgia U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter (R) has also spoken out against the rule.

NOAA received more than 90,000 public comments on the proposal last year, but it was not clear when — or if — the agency will finalize the changes.

A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund, the Kendeda Fund and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/