Conservation and animal-protection groups have sued the National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States, alleging it failed to protect right whales from entanglement in commercial fishing gear.
The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., late last week, alleges the federal management of the U.S. lobster fishery violates the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
At least 17 right whales died in Canadian and U.S. waters last year, and scientists believe human activity, including shipping and fishing, was the primary cause.
- 16th North Atlantic right whale found dead off Cape Cod
- Right whales could be 20 years away from certain extinction, scientists say
"2017 was an absolutely devastating year for the species," said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a national, nonprofit conservation organization in the U.S.
"This has really become a crisis [and] the federal government needs to be doing everything in its power to save this species from deadly, painful entanglements before it's too late."
The Humane Society of the United States and Defenders of Wildlife are also involved in the suit.
Necropsies on seven of the endangered whales found that four died of blunt force trauma from collisions with ships, while the other three appear to have died after they got entangled in fishing gear.
The lawsuit seeks to force the National Marine Fisheries Service to do a sufficient examination of the fishery's impact on North Atlantic right whales and adopt additional measures to prevent entanglements.
She said some of those measures would include lowering the breaking strengths of the ropes used, so that when a whale comes into contact with fishing gear, it breaks more easily, and entanglement doesn't result in a serious injury or death.
Another measure would be to incorporate ropeless fishing.
"The technology exists," Monsell said. "It's just a matter of getting that technology off the ground and into the water. If you get rid of the rope you get rid of the risk of entanglement."
The lobster fishery is the most active fixed-gear fishery in the northeastern United States, she said.
The lawsuit focuses primarily on entanglement, which Monsell said is the "primary threat to the species" in the United States.
She said the U.S. government has already implemented a ship speed rule that requires ships to slow down to 10 knots or less in some areas at certain times of year.
"That rule has been effective at reducing ship strikes," she said. "We think it could be stronger … but it has significantly reduced the number of right whales that are dying because of ship strikes in the U.S. [but] that is not the case on the fisheries side of things."
Estimates of the number of North Atlantic right whales left in the world range from 450 to 500.
Monsell's estimate is at the low end and she said scientists have found the population has been declining since 2010.
CBC News has tried for a comment from the U.S. National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration but has not heard back.
Responding to the crisis
In August, the Canadian government implemented a temporary mandatory slowdown to 10 knots for vessels 20 metres or longer to try to prevent whale deaths in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The speed limit was lifted on Jan. 11 because whales had not been seen since December and moved on.
Violations were reported for 542 ship transits after Transport Canada imposed the reduced speed limit for part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence last summer.
In November, Fisheries and Oceans Minister Dominic LeBlanc also met with scientists, fishermen, large-vessel operators and Indigenous groups to work on ways to reduce the number of deaths in the gulf.
LeBlanc said the government would introduce new policies before next summer based on these discussions.
Although Monsell applauded Canada for reducing travel speeds for vessels and hopes the lower speed will be restored when right whales return to the area.
But she said the federal government needs to do more to address the risk from entanglements, particularly in the snow crab fishery.
"When a whale does get entangled in snow crab gear, it's a significant possibility it will lead to that whale's death," she said.
"Changes have to be made if we're going to save the species."