Endangered Species Act for Whales
by Suzanne McCullough White
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted by Congress in 1973 and currently lists 1,890 species, including 78 species of whales and dolphins. There are 12 species of whales listed as either endangered or depleted.
As members of order Cetacea, whales were already protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, which lists those that are depleted. The 12 species that are listed as endangered or threatened are given further protection by the ESA: the beluga whale, blue whale, bowhead whale, fin whale, gray whale, humpback whale, killer whale, North Atlantic right whale, North Pacific right whale, sei whale, Southern right whale and sperm whale.
Whales are divided into two groups: the baleen whales (11 species in the suborder Mysticeti) and the toothed whales (67 species in the suborder Odontoceti). Dolphins and porpoises are considered to be toothed whales.
Most of the endangered species of whales are baleen whales, which were slaughtered by the whaling industry until the mid-20th century and have yet to recover their numbers. Dangers to whales today include being hit by ships and becoming entangled in commercial fishing equipment. One of the most critically endangered whales is the North Atlantic right whale, which not only moves very slowly but also comes to the surface often and goes into shallow areas where they are more likely to come into contact with boats.
To prevent ship strikes to North Atlantic right whales, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has enacted speed restrictions on larger boats (those 65 feet or longer). These vessels must go no faster than 10 knots when traveling along the eastern coast of the United States at certain times of the year when the whales are known to be in the area. They have also issued re-routing notices and held workshops to try to determine other ways to prevent collisions between whales and ships.
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded in 1946 "to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry." The IWC acts as a watchdog group for the whaling industry worldwide. Among other things, they make sure that whales protected under the MMPA and ESA are not killed, that no mothers and calves are ever taken and that certain areas are off limits. The IWC also supports whale research.