The federal government must do more to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from getting tangled up in lobster gear, a leading cause of death for the rapidly declining mammals, a lawsuit filed Wednesday asserts.
A coalition of environmental groups filed the suit in US District Court in Washington, D.C., against officials from the Commerce Department and National Marine Fisheries Service.
According to a 33-page civil complaint, there were only about 455 right whales in 2016, and at least 17 died last year, “pushing the species even closer to the brink of extinction.” Many of the whales have been spotted off Cape Cod.
The complaint says entanglement in commercial fishing gear has been the “primary cause” of right whale deaths in recent years, and the “lobster fishery is a U.S. fishery that frequently entangles right whales.”
In 2014, the complaint states, the fisheries service issued a “biological opinion” finding that the lobster fishery is likely to kill or seriously injure more than three North Atlantic right whales every year, yet the agency also concluded “the fishery is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of North Atlantic right whales.”
The suit alleges the fisheries service “is failing to ensure that its continued authorization, permitting, and management of the American lobster fishery does not jeopardize the continued existence of endangered North Atlantic right whales.”
Plaintiffs want a judge to order the fisheries service to “implement additional mitigation measures to reduce the risk of entanglement of North Atlantic right whales,” among other remedies.
Jane P. Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a phone interview that there are a number of ways to tackle the problem, including ropeless fishing, which has been implemented in some locales for target species such as the Golden Crab.
“It’s not the traps and pots killing whales,” Davenport said. “It’s the lines.”
Her group is also pushing for mandatory reporting on the location of every commercial fishing trip where certain lines are used and clear marking of the ropes, so researchers can determine which areas and lines are the most dangerous for the whales.
She said authorities can’t delay taking action to protect a species that researchers fear could face “functional extinction” within 20 years.
“This past year, we saw an absolutely catastrophic number of right whale deaths in Canadian and US waters,” Davenport said. “We have a handful of years to try to turn the Titanic because we are directly on course to crash into the iceberg here.”
A spokeswoman for the fisheries service declined to comment, writing in an e-mail that the agency “cannot discuss ongoing litigation.”
The Commerce Department didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry seeking comment, and the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association didn’t immediately return a call.
Arthur “Sooky” Sawyer, president of the Lobstermen’s Association, told the Cape Cod Times that last year’s spike in right whale deaths had “everyone in a panic mode.” He told the Times that Massachusetts lobstermen “have done a lot” to address the issue, “but you can’t expect lobster fishing to go away.”
Right whales were threatened with extinction by centuries of whaling when protection was introduced in 1935. Their population rose from 350 in 1990 to 476 in 2010, but since then, there’s been evidence of decline, according to a study published in November in Nature Scientific Reports.
Genevieve Davis, a Woods Hole researcher and lead author of the study, told the Globe that more of the whales have appeared to be gathering in Cape Cod Bay in recent years, possibly because of rising temperatures moving their prey, or human effects including fishing gear entanglements.
Federal authorities in August declared the recent spate of deaths to be an unusual mortality event, a declaration that allows the government to provide more resources, including aerial surveys, to probe the fatalities and examine what can be done to protect the species.
Two months later, a right whale was found decomposing on Nashawena Island south of Cape Cod.