Environmentalists Tussle With Biden Administration in Suit to Protect Rare Whales

A team of environmentalist groups are continuing a lawsuit against the U.S. government in an effort to create stronger rules to protect the rare North Atlantic right whale from collisions with ships.

These whales are vulnerable to ship strikes and entanglement with fishing gear. The Associated Press reported that a group of scientists said in 2019 there were 366 North Atlantic right whales. The population fell to 336 in 2020. The species is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act since 1970, according to The National Marine Fisheries Service.

Petitioners would like the fisheries Service to expand areas and times in which a speed limit rule applies to protect the whales. They also called for the government to make speed rules mandatory and apply to both large and small vessels.

President Joe Biden's administration has pushed against the suit and tried to have it dismissed. However, court records stated the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia denied the request Wednesday. Records said the court ruled the government "cannot avoid its obligation" in considering what the environmentalists are asking.

While the lawsuit is an opportunity to protect the whales, Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of the North American office of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, one of the environmental groups petitioning, said it could also make waters safer for shippers.

Asmutis-Silvia pointed out that is especially important because right whales have been spotted outside of their typical migratory patterns in recent years and could take boaters by surprise.

"To me, it's a safety issue for both the vessels and the right whales. They're not easy to see, and they're in newer habitats that people aren't as used to seeing them," Asmutis-Silvia said.

Because the lawsuit is ongoing, a spokesperson for the fisheries service declined to comment.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

North Atlantic right whales, Environmentalists, Biden Administration
A North Atlantic right whale appears at the surface on March 28, 2018, off the coast of Plymouth, Mass. A team of evironmental groups were given clearance by a federal court to continue a lawsuit against the Biden Administration to create stronger rules to protect North Atlantic right whales. Michael Dwyer/AP Photo, File

Right whale conservation has been a contentious topic in recent years because of the potential economic impact of protecting the whales on shipping and commercial fishing. The Maine lobster industry is dealing with a suite of new rules to try to save the whales.

However, a Maine lobster fishing union in October won relief in court to try to stop the closure of fishing grounds off the state. A federal judge said the rules had the potential to economically damage the fishing industry without protecting the whales.

The whales were once abundant off New England, but they were decimated during the commercial whaling era.

North Atlantic right whale, Biden Administration, Lawsuit
A full-scale model of Phoenix, a North Atlantic Right Whale, is seen on display at the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural HIstory during a press preview September 24, 2008 in Washington, DC. A team of environmental groups are fighting for the protection of the whales from boats is being in a lawsuit against the U.S. government. Karen Bleier/AFP via Getty Images