The right whale to save: Georgia's gentle giant deserves federal conservation funding
Guest Columnist NANCY K. DAVES, retired international specialist, NOAA Fisheries
Every Winter, many North Atlantic right whales make their way home to the ocean off Georgia's coast to calve, seeking safe and warmer waters to have their babies before the long voyage home to the New England and Canadian waters in the Spring. North Florida and Georgia coastal communities play an important role in the stewardship of one of the largest whales roaming the seas. However, these whales face much danger in their corridor of migration and the time has come to pass federal legislation calling on the federal government to help conserve right whales.
During seven years in the environmental community and 23 years working for NOAA Fisheries, I worked to ensure that all the great whales were safe from hunting and illegal international trade. I engaged with colleagues, including the late Lindy Johnson, as they developed national and international regulations to keep North Atlantic right whales safe from ship strike in recognized shipping lanes and from entanglement in fishing gear.
These last two threats, thought to be relatively controlled, have been increasing in recent years. In fact, 28 North Atlantic right whales have been killed between 2017 and 2019.
Industrial whaling decimated the whale's population for more than 900 years, and right whales have yet to fully recover from the pressures of historic whaling. Because they were often found near shore, swim slowly and tend to float when killed, this made them an easy whale to target and therefore deeming them the "right" whale to hunt. Whaling was banned in 1935, when it was thought that as few as 100 right whales were left.
In 1973, North Atlantic right whales gained more federal protection from the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Then in the early 1980s Georgia made international news for the whales.
In the winter of 1981-82, Charles Cowan, Hans Neauhauser, and Cathy Sakas discovered a beached North Atlantic right whale calf on a Little St. Simons beach, off coastal Georgia. By 1984, Scott Kraus, leading North Atlantic right whale researcher from the New England Aquarium, and up and coming hotshot Delta Airlines pilot David Mattingly, who volunteered to organize aerial surveillance research, which documented mothers and newborn calves along the Georgia coast. This would become a pivotal publication named the "Delta Surveys." This early work in Coastal Georgia uncovered that the whales were coming to the coast of Georgia to calve in the winters. What we now know as the only known calving corridor on the planet. The area stretches from about Jacksonville Florida to Savannah Georgia.
The significance of this discovery evoked a wave of excitement across our ocean state. In 1985, following the discovery of this calving ground and critical habitat, just 15 miles off the coast of Georgia and northern Florida, Georgia Conservancy, along with help from many of the community, led the successful campaign to the Georgia General Assembly to designate the North Atlantic right whale official Georgia's state marine mammal.
With whaling banned, and under the policies including ESA and MMPA, the population of right whales started to recover. But high demands of shipping and fishing throughout the migratory corridor of these right whales are also on the rise. The majority of documented mortality events are the result of blunt force collisions from ships, and entanglement in commercial fishing gear in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada. Since the problem has been identified, it is now time to fix it. This will take an act of coordination between NGOs, agency, nations, fishermen, shipping industry, Georgia communities, and our elected leaders to protect the whales from fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes. What was once the right whale to hunt, must now become the right whale to save.
In September of 2019, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson cosponsored the SAVE the Right Whales Act of 2019, and U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Savannah) cosponsored a companion measure in the House. The legislation intends to provide authorization and funding to address the desperately needed innovations that will help address the two biggest threats to these whales – ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.
While the federal government has a key role to play here, it's also important that other stakeholders including the fishing and shipping industries, academic community, and conservation community are brought together to work together on solutions. That's what the SAVE Act does – it provides a much-needed federal investment to help develop new, innovative technology solutions that will keep fishermen fishing and ship cargo moving without continuing to injure and kill right whales.
It is now time for every single elected leader in the state of Georgia to take a stand again for the future of our state marine mammal and support this bill. Acknowledging there is much more to be done to protect our whales, passing the SAVE the Right Whales Act is a great step in right direction and considers all the stakeholders an important part of the solutions.
Note to readers: During 23 years with the federal government, Nancy K. Daves worked on various protected resources issues including wildlife trade, incidental take reduction of marine mammals and capacity building in developing countries. In 2016, she retired to Atlanta, where she works on local conservation issues.