Atlantic right whales are just one species among many groups of plants and animals that are dying off, the assessment says. More than 1 in 4 species around the world are threatened with extinction. Lemurs in Madagascar have plummeted from hunting. European hamsters have declined because of development. And “the world’s most expensive fungus,” the caterpillar fungus on the Tibetan Plateau, has been nearly wiped out by overharvesting for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
“At the heart of this crisis is a dire need for alternative, sustainable livelihoods to replace the current reliance on deforestation and unsustainable use of wildlife,” Grethel Aguilar, IUCN’s acting director general, said in a statement. “These findings really bring home the urgent need for an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework that drives effective conservation action.”
The updated assessment from a report in 2018 found that 27 percent of plants and animals evaluated around the globe are threatened. It follows a 2019 United Nations report by seven leading scientists from universities across the world who found that 1 million species of plants and animals face extinction because of human activity.
Nearly 150 authors from 50 nations worked for three years to compile the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services — a panel with 132 member nations, including the United States. The authors urged the world’s governments to address the decline of biodiversity along with human-caused climate change.
The deaths of 30 Atlantic right whales were confirmed as human-caused between 2012 and 2016, according to the IUCN report, and all but four were caused by entanglement in fishing gear. They contributed to a 15 percent decline in the population of the animals, which swim from Newfoundland, Canada, down to Florida in search of food and breeding grounds. The IUCN listed the animals as critically endangered, a step up from their endangered status in the United States.
“This status change is a call to arms: unless we act decisively to turn the tide, the next time the right whale’s Red List status changes it will be to ‘extinct,’ ” Jane Davenport, a senior attorney for Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement.
On June 5, Trump signed a proclamation that opened the Atlantic Ocean’s only fully protected marine sanctuary to commercial fishing, as he dismissed arguments that crab traps, fishing nets and lines dangling hooks can harm fish and whales.
The order allowed fishing to resume at the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of New England. The Obama administration closed off nearly 5,000 square miles of ocean in September 2016 to save whales and allow marine life to recover from overfishing.
At a roundtable led by Trump in Maine, former Maine governor Paul LePage (R) said fishing’s “not hurting” the whales, adding that “in the last two decades, there’s not been an entanglement or a death in Maine waters.”
Trump listened as LePage suggested that he should go to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and tell them “to get reasonable about their regulations” against fishing that could kill mammals. “They are the problem.”
The president turned to David Bernhardt, his interior secretary who attended the meeting, and said, “You work that, David.” Bernhardt replied, “I’ll talk to them.”
“As long as we can protect the whale, I’m going to do it, all right?” Trump said.
Within weeks, a petition circulated by conservation groups called on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to strengthen marine protections in the area.
Trump administration officials were already working to approve permits that would allow companies to search for oil and gas deposits using potentially harmful seismic blasts in the Atlantic Ocean, despite its decision to delay an unprecedented plan to sell federal leases on nearly the entire U.S. outer continental shelf.
Seven geology companies are hoping for permits from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a division of the Interior Department, to map the ocean floor from New Jersey to Florida using seismic sound waves that, some scientists say, harm fish and marine mammals, including the North Atlantic right whale. Conservationists are fighting the permits in federal court in South Carolina.
The update to the “Red List of Threatened Species” shows that 32,441 species out of a total of 120,372 face extinction.
“We have to take bold and rapid action to reduce the huge damage we’re doing to the planet if we’re going to save whales, frogs, lemurs and ultimately ourselves,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
That includes stamping out the wildlife trade and other activities that have also been tied to the origins of the global coronavirus pandemic, Curry said in a statement.
“We really can do all of these things, but we need world leaders to stand up and do them.”