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Isakson: A common thread in conservation of right whales off Georgia’s coast

right whale, entangled On Feb. 13, 2011, a state biologist prepares to cut a monofilament fishing net that was entangled in the mouth of right whale No. 3760. The rescue was attempted 20 miles east of St. Simons Island. Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, NOAA permit #932-1905

By David Pendered

Bipartisan support now surrounds the endangered right whales off Georgia’s coast. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp proclaimed December as Right Whale Awareness Month. Former Democratic Gov. Joe Frank Harris signed legislation that made the right whale the state’s marine mammal in 1985.

Sen. Johnny Isakson

Sen. Johnny Isakson is the common thread between the two measures. Isakson retires from the Senate at the end of this month.

Isakson made a point about the right whales being special in Georgia when he co-sponsored federal legislation to provide $50 million, over 10 years, to help conserve endangered right whales. Isakson recalled legislation in the Georgia General Assembly, in 1985, when he said in a statement:

  • “The North Atlantic right whale was named the official Georgia state marine mammal when I served as minority leader in the Georgia State House, and I am proud that my state’s coast is still home to one of the few known calving grounds for this magnificent animal.
  • “I’m glad to introduce the Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered Right Whales Act to help learn about how we can better protect this important animal whose numbers continue to dwindle.”

Kemp’s office didn’t make a fuss when the governor signed the proclamation, on Dec. 3. There doesn’t appear to be a statement, as typically is the case at such times. That means there’s no acknowledgement of Isakson’s apparent fondness for the gentle creatures as contributing in anyway to Kemp’s proclamation.

Further, wording in the resolution puts the governor firmly in support of right whales off Georgia’s coast. It reaffirms Kemp’s stated opposition to President Trump’s initial proposal to allow testing and drilling for oil off Georgia’s coast, and with it the seismic testing that’s been shown to endanger right whales and other seagoing creatures.

right whale, entangled

On Feb. 13, 2011, a state biologist prepares to cut a monofilament fishing net that was entangled in the mouth of right whale No. 3760. The rescue was attempted 20 miles east of St. Simons Island. Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, NOAA permit #932-1905

Kemp’s resolution states, in part:

  • “WHEREAS: Central threats to the North Atlantic right whale include entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and emergent concerns for other industrialization of offshore waters; and
  • “WHEREAS: In partnership with other state and federal governments and stakeholders, the State of Georgia will conduct aerial and boat surveys to monitor the whale population, collect genetic samples, document entangled whales, and remove fishing rope when possible to help conserve right whales in the southeast; and …
  • “WHEREAS: Coastal and inland Georgia communities must be aware of the importance of their waters for the survival of the North Atlantic right whales and aim to protect their offshore habitat to help promote and increase in calving while preventing the mortality of the vulnerable creatures; now
  • “THEREFORE: I, BRIAN P. KEMP, Governor of the State of Georgia, do hereby proclaim December 2019 as NORTH ATLANTIC RIGHT WHALE AWARENESS MONTH in Georgia.”

The 1985 legislation reminds of the rapid trajectory of Georgia’s awareness of marine life. Just 34 years ago, a single generation, the presence of right whales off Georgia’s coast was viewed as a marvel to be protected. Now, environmental advocates have gathered to protect waterways flowing into Georgia’s coastal waters and, just in October, saw Mission Blue dedicate the Hope Spot marine conservation area.

Georgia in 1985 enacted two measures related to right whales: Georgia declared February 1985 as Whale Month and commended those who helped discover the presence of whales; Georgia named the right whale as the state marine mammal.

Joe Frank Harris, right whales

Gov. Joe Frank Harris signed legislation in 1985 that marked the start of efforts to conserve right whales off Georgia’s coast. Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

The resolution approved by the state House and Senate that declares the right whale as the state marine mammal reads:

  • “WHEREAS, in 1980, photographers from the Department of Natural Resources discovered and photographed a right whale off the Georgia coast; and
  • “WHEREAS, those photographers were the basis for an expedition to the area by the New England Aquarium, since the whale was familiar to them and known to them as Fermata; and
  • “WHEREAS, the expedition, led by a group of Delta Airlines pilots from Atlanta, again sighted Fermata with a newborn calf and during the expedition sighted 14 more adult whales and four newborn calves; and
  • “WHEREAS, the coastal waters of Georgia were found to be the heretofore unknown calving grounds of the North Atlantic Right Whale, the only known member of the great whale group that is native to Georgia; and
  • “WHEREAS, the discovery of the Georgia calving grounds is one of the most exciting discoveries in the study of marine mammal and will add to the knowledge that is vital to the survival of the species.
  • “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF GEORGIA that the right whale is designated as the official Georgia state marine mammal.
  • Approved April 2, 1985.”


Georgia declared February 1985 as Whale Month to recognize the effort that located right whales off Georgia’s coast. Special to SaportaReport


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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1 Comment

  1. Glenn Carroll February 23, 2020 1:21 pm

    There is a back story to Georgia’s relationship with the endangered right whale that needs to also be remembered.

    First of all, Georgia is the ONLY known calving area for the North Atlantic Right Whale … and this fact was indeed not known until 1984 when the U.S. Navy was halfway through constructing the Kings Bay base to accommodate its fleet of massive Trident nuclear submarines.

    In 1979, an Environmental Impact Statement analyzed the impacts of the submarine base project on Georgia’s delicate coastal eco-system without contemplating the impacts upon the whales because the presence of the whales was unknown. In 1981, a stranded baby whale on Little St. Simons launched the investigation which led to our current state of celebrating the right whale as Georgia’s marine mammal.

    The Kings Bay Trident submarine base has been in operation since 1989, and has to be dredged frequently for the six five-story tall, 200-yards liong nuclear-armed submarines deployed from the base. The effects of the base in the right whale calving area has NEVER been analyzed and now the Navy is planning to reconstruct the base for a replacement fleet of even bigger submarines without considering the right whales. The $100 billion Trident project is Georgia’s piece of the new nuclear arms race pie and will surely have a negative impact on our beloved endangered whales.

    I hope and pray we will quit ignoring this elephant in the living room … NUKES IN THE WHALE NURSERY … and pick Earth, life and whales over nuclear weapons forever.Report


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