Right whale must remain on endangered species list to avoid extinction, feds say

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With fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales remaining, the federal government on Tuesday declared they must stay on the endangered species list.

The population of the species, one of three in the right whale family, continues to decline and “has not met many of the recovery criteria outlined,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.

The Southern Right Whale and the North Pacific right whale are equally endangered, NOAA said.

Disputes over how best to protect them from vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements and other perils pits Maine lobster fishermen against conservationists, with politicians getting into the mix as well.

Tuesday’s announcement stemmed from a mandatory five-year review of the whale’s status conducted by NOAA. It came about a week after the Maine congressional delegation and Gov. Janet Mills had pushed through a provision in the new omnibus spending bill allowing for a six-year “regulatory pause” on right whale protections in order to preserve the state’s lobster industry.

The provision would stop new restrictions on lobster fishing from taking effect, a move that Mills and industry leaders said would not harm the whale.

“Maine lobstermen have been practicing sustainability measures for over 150 years,” the Maine Lobster Industry, a consortium of fisher organizations, said in a statement outlining its efforts. “This means protecting the health of the lobster stock, and also treating the entire marine environment with respect and care. The industry recognizes the precarious situation of the North Atlantic right whale, and since the 1990s fishermen have been taking proactive steps to ensure the fishery and the whales can co-exist.”

Environmentalists contend that not enough is being done to preserve the whales’ teetering numbers.

Some food vendors, including Whole Foods and Hello Fresh, have stopped selling Maine lobster until the issues are sorted out. The move, announced last month, came after the Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch – the former based in London and the latter in California – rescinded their endorsements of the lobster fishing industry throughout the U.S., including the Gulf of Maine.

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