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SAVE Right Whales Act (H.R. 1568) Draws Praise, Along with Concerns
March 27, 2019

North Atlantic right whale #2743, a 22 year old male, was photographed 27 nautical miles off Nassau Sound in Florida on February 8, 2019. The white marks at the base of his flukes are scars caused by entanglement in fishing ropes, making him part of the 83% of North Atlantic right whales that have been entangled in fishing rope at least once in their lives.
credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, NOAA permit #20556-01

The Scientific Assistance for Very Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales Act of 2019 or the 'SAVE Right Whales Act' (H.R. 1568) has been reintroduced in the 116th Congress. The bill calls for the funding of projects and inventions designed to help protect North Atlantic right whales from fishing rope entanglements and ship strikes and would also authorize funding for plankton surveys to gauge the food supply of North Atlantic right whales. We support the idea of more funding for projects that could help protect these whales but we are also concerned about some parts of the law.

The bill states, "Subject to the availability of funds and in consultation with other Federal officials, the Secretary of Commerce (in this title referred to as the "Secretary") shall provide competitive financial assistance, including multiyear grants, for projects for the conservation of North Atlantic right whales for which project proposals are approved by the Secretary in accordance with this section."

"Shall provide" appears to mean that they must provide the grants, which is better than wording like "May provide" which would mean they could or should provide the funds, but it's overshadowed by the "Subject to the availability of funds" piece. This means that the availability of funds is subject to the amount of money appropriated to the Commerce Department (the department that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is under) during Congressional budget negotiations. It's our understanding that this authorizes money to be given to them but doesn't ensure that it will be.

The individual that would be in charge of administering this program were it to somehow to pass and be funded by Congress, Wilbur Ross - the current Commerce Secretary - has already lied to Congress on a separate issue and is under much scrutiny from government ethics groups and members of Congress for his repeated and widespread ethical problems.

He was also the one overseeing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) - which is under NOAA and therefore under the Commerce Department - when they made the absurd, illegal decision to allow seismic blasting on the east coast of the US. Their decision to allow the blasting violates the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act and is being challenged in federal court by multiple environmental and animal protection groups along with 16 coastal communities in South Carolina and the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce with the support of ten East Coast attorneys general. We are concerned about the Secretary and his office possibly refusing to follow H.R. 1568 at all in light of the fact that an agency that he is supposed to be overseeing is violating three federal laws in their approval of seismic blasting.

Scientific research on endangered species conducted by the NMFS is also being repressed at the urging of pesticide industry lobbyists, undermining the credibility of anything released by the agency at this time and causing the public to question if there is anything else being repressed regarding any other issues. The newly proposed NOAA budget for fiscal year 2020 [PDF] that the Commerce Department has just released also makes us seriously question how the Commerce Department can claim to care about the protection of endangered species as the budget cuts many crucial programs for them.

$4,000,000 is slated to be cut from the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program, eliminating it entirely, about $2,600,000 from the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act permitting process and $1,000,000 in funding for research and monitoring of North Atlantic right whales and the threats they face from the fishing and shipping industries. Also, in the PDF of the budget we linked to, the amounts being cut for these programs are listed in the thousands, possibly in attempt to lessen the impact it will have on readers to make people think they're not cutting as much (similar to saying something costs $99.99 to try to lessen the impact that a $100 price tag might have). For example, if only $1,000 was being cut from a program then it would say $1 is being cut as in one set of $1,000. The right whale research section says only $1,000 is being cut but $1,000 x $1,000 = $1,000,000.

We are also concerned about where the funds raised through H.R. 1568 might be distributed, especially in light of the Secretary's ethics problems and lack of credibility combined with the lack of any respect or care that the Commerce Department has for North Atlantic right whales. We are also concerned about their compliance when it comes to Section 101-C-1-C. That part of the legislation states, "...The Secretary shall annually...(C) review each such proposal on a time­line that recognizes the urgency of the declining North Atlantic right whale population to determine whether the proposal meets the criteria specified in subsection (d)." We doubt they will recognize or care about the urgency considering how they already treat North Atlantic right whales.

Another section of the law, Section 101-C, is very revealing - especially part 2-B. "(2) Subject to the availability of funds, the Secretary shall, with respect to each project proposal submitted under this section, and after consulting with other Federal officials, as appropriate...(B) after taking into consideration any comments resulting from the consultation and any potential losses that could be incurred to the fishing industry as a result of the proposal, approve or disapprove the proposal". This provision means that the Secretary of Commerce could still approve a proposal even if it might incur 'potential losses' to the industry but it's worrisome for a few reasons.

The first problem is how they might define 'potential losses'. They could be talking about potentially having lower catches of whichever species they are targeting (such as lobster) and therefore not making as much money if new fishing gear technology designed to stop entanglements was put in place that lowered the catch but they could also define losses as the money spent by fishermen to use a new technology. For example, if a project that was approved for funding under this law was estimated to cost $100,000 then the government would pay $75,000 and the non-Federal group working on the project (such as a fishing industry group or whale protection organization) would pay $25,000 due to a matching requirement in the legislation. If this $100,000 project was successful in designing a new piece of technology to reduce entanglements, it would still cost money to implement.

If the cost of implementing the technology was per $500 fishermen, they could define that as a loss. The NOAA is already mandated to consider the economic well-being of the fishing industry and unfortunately this provision only strengthens that mandate. There is a inherent conflict of interest between North Atlantic right whales and the industry that is causing them harm and legislation that is supposed to help these whales shouldn't have to consider the economic well-being of the industry. Life should come before profit but under the current system, profit always comes first.

Another section, 101-E, states, "To the extent practicable, in determining whether to approve project proposals under this section, the Secretary shall prioritize projects that are designed to reduce the lethal and sub-lethal effects of human activities on North Atlantic right whales. In prioritizing such projects, the Secretary shall prioritize, among such projects, projects that are cooperative in nature and include fishing or shipping sector participants." Although there is some desire in the fishing and shipping industries to stop North Atlantic right whale deaths - if for no other reason than to reduce the amount of regulations and potential costs to their industries - there is also the economic interest, the drive for profits that is killing these whales in the first place and as we already know, profits come first and if these industries truly cared about these whales they wouldn't constantly fight new regulations on their industries and would have already done more to protect these whales.

Even after all of our concerns, we cautiously endorse this legislation as there is still some potential to help North Atlantic right whales but our endorsement is subject to change depending on the specific research and projects that may be approved and the eventual results of research and projects. We are glad that some members of Congress are paying more attention to the plight of North Atlantic right whales and we do have some hope that legislation that could help these whales would actually have a chance of passing in the new Congress but this legislation is just a small first step and we don't believe that even this bill would pass the Senate or be signed into law right now and anything stronger would have a nearly 0% chance of passing.

The next time that even better legislation would have a chance of being signed into law wouldn't be until at least January of 2021 when the United States (hopefully) has a Democratic-controlled Senate and White House along with Democrats retaining control of the House. Even then, we understand that legislation alone will not fully protect these whales and that the actions to protect them must come from all of us. Whether it is someone learning about entanglements and choosing to avoid eating lobster or crabs, slowing down any boats you're piloting after you understand the major threat that ship strikes pose to whales or taking many others actions to help protect North Atlantic right whales - we have the collective power to help these whales on our own, starting right now.

To find out more about what is happening to North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales and how we can all take actions in our everyday lives to protect them, please visit our Facts and Action sections on our website. We also post updates and pictures on Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter.