Feds warn it's wrong to approach endangered right whales

Better not get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time with a right whale: Approaching too close to the endangered species without a federal permit can plunge you into expensive legal hot water.

A pair of kayakers recently paddled out to try to help an endangered mamma right whale that looked in distress as it swam alongside its calf off Ponte Vedra Beach, near Jacksonville. One of the two men involved told News4JAX that he'd tried to get a rope off the North Atlantic right whale — a species with fewer than 350 individuals left. Another paddler shot video of the Dec. 17 encounter.

Despite their good intentions, the pair may face legal consequences.

Right whales are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Those who approach too close can face maximum penalties up to $100,000, a year in jail and confiscation of one's vessel.

"This matter is currently under investigation, and it is standard NOAA practice not to comment on open investigations," Allison Garrett, a spokeswoman with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regional office in St. Petersburg, Florida, said Monday via email. "It is essential that right whale moms and calves are given space to bond — 500 yards (or 5 football fields) is the minimum distance people can approach North Atlantic right whales under the law."

Humans are still the leading cause of right whale deaths, federal biologists say, even though the whales have not been hunted commercially for more than 80 years. The two main causes are entanglements in commercial fishing gear and vessel strikes, according to NOAA.

But despite the harm fishing rope lines cause the whales, wildlife officials long have warned against taking conservation matters such as cutting them free into one's own hands, regardless of good intentions. Doing so can be deadly.

"It's dangerous," said Julie Albert, coordinator of the nonprofit Marine Resources Council's right whale conservation program. "The muscles they have in their tail are unbelievably powerful."

In 2017, a volunteer died while trying to help free an entangled right whale in Canada. The fatal blow to Joe Howlett, 59, came moments after he leaned over and cut it free using a spear with a knife on the end. The whale's powerful tail struck him as it dove.

The same year, NOAA began documented elevated North Atlantic right whale deaths, primarily in Canada, prompting the agency to declare a formal investigation into the deaths it called an "unusual mortality event."

The record 17 dead whales (12 in Canada) overshadowed the five births that year.

This winter, biologists are monitoring at least nine recently born right whale calves.

The mother whale involved in the recent Ponte Vedra Beach incident was one that state and federal biologists were well aware of, had already been unentangled as much as they could. Biologists had named the whale.

"That was Snow Cone," Albert said.

"All the pros know about it," Albert added, "and we were just going to leave her alone but we have well-meaning folks who tried to help when the best thing to do is just report the sighting and let the professionals handle the situation."

It's not the first time boats have approached too close to Snow Cone. The whale has become a posterchild of sorts for the perils of her species' when it comes to harassment from boaters.

According to the nonprofit Environment America, in December 2019 Snow Cone and her first calf — a male born off the coast of northeastern Florida — swam to the to the Gulf of Mexico where boats followed dangerously close to marvel at the pair. Then only six months later, Snow Cone’s calf was found dead off the coast of New Jersey, killed by two separate boat strikes.

Snow Cone was first noticed to be entangled in several ropes in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts in March. Rescue efforts removed enough rope that biologists believed she was no longer in imminent danger. At that time, she was entangled in several ropes.

To reduce the risk of harassment or collisions between right whales and boats, federal law requires all vessels and aircraft to keep a distance of 500 yards from right whales. The rule applies to watercraft or aircraft — including drones — as well as non-motorized watercraft such as paddle boards and surfboards.

Feds: No drones near endangered right whales

NOAA officials say drones that buzz too close spook and stress the mother and/or the calf.

"Drones are getting to be a big issue," Albert said.

Humans have been the biggest issue for right whales over the past century. There were targeted for oil for lamps as the "right" whale to hunt, because they swim close to shore, slowly, and float when killed. By the early 1890s, commercial whalers had harpooned them to the brink of extinction. While whaling is no longer a threat, the species now endures entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes as its leading causes of death. Sonar and other underwater noise from ships and other man-made sounds also interfere with the whale's ability to communicate, feed and breed.

One recent study by the International Fund for Animal Welfare of 70 right whales deaths, between 2003 and 2018, found 43 of the deaths had a known cause, and almost 90% of those deaths were caused by human activities.

Canada has local seasonal vessel speed limits and fisheries management strategies to protect whales, but some researchers and activists believe more needs to be done, such as mandatory speed restrictions and fisheries closures in larger areas, fishing gear modifications to include "rope-less" fishing, and coordinated gear marking to help determine where whales become entangled.

There are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales remaining in the world, biologists said, with about 100 actively reproductive females. Some scientists predict those 100 females could all be dead in 20 years, putting the species at risk of extinction.

Right whale classes

The nonprofit Marine Resources Council will hold right whale educational classes in January:

  • 2 p.m. Jan. 8 at the Cocoa Beach Library, 550 N Brevard Ave . This is a volunteer training class in the large meeting room at the library, to teach how to identify right whales and what to do when you see one.

  • 3 p.m. Jan. 16. Julie Albert of MRC will give a presentation about right whales during a Space Coast River Tours regular sunset tour out of Kelly Park. To book a spot, call (321) 652-1052.

If you see an entangled or stranded whale, call the toll-free hotline at 888-97-WHALE. The best way you can help is by calling to report what you are seeing and take photos/video from a safe distance.

Jim Waymer is an environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Waymer at 321-261-5903 or jwaymer@floridatoday.com. Or find him on Twitter: @JWayEnviro or on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jim.waymer

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Watching protected right whales from up too close can draw hefty fines