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Helping Endangered Whales Becomes Difficult Due To Shutdown

These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts

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A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., March 28, 2018. VOA

Rescuers who respond to distressed whales and other marine animals say the federal government shutdown is making it more difficult to do their work.

A network of rescue groups in the U.S. works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine mammals such as whales and seals when the animals are in trouble, such as when they are stranded on land or entangled in fishing gear. But the federal shutdown, which entered its 33rd day on Wednesday, includes a shuttering of the NOAA operations the rescuers rely upon.

NOAA plays a role in preventing accidental whale deaths by doing things like tracking the animals, operating a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and providing permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies. Those functions are disrupted or ground to a halt by the shutdown, and that’s bad news if whales need help, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston, which has a rescue operation.

Pilot whales
Orca

“If it was very prolonged, then it would become problematic to respond to animals that are in the water,” LaCasse said. “And to be able to have a better handle on what is really going on.”

The shutdown is coming at a particularly dangerous time for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which numbers about 411, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with Whale and Dolphin Conservation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The whales are under tight scrutiny right now because of recent years of high mortality and poor reproduction.

NOAA recently identified an aggregation of 100 of the whales south of Nantucket — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — but the survey work is now interrupted by the shutdown, Asmutis-Silvia said. Surveys of rare whales are important for biologists who study the animals and so rescuers can have an idea of where they are located, she said. No right whale mortalities have been recorded so far in 2019, but there have been at least 20 since April 2017.

“There’s a really significant impact on marine mammal conservation based on this shutdown,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “We have little to no ability to find them because of NOAA’s being furloughed.”

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The Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum is seen shuttered during the partial government shutdown, Jan. 4, 2019, in Washington. VOA

Many in the conservation community are anticipating potential changes to federal government’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which is a tool to reduce incidental deaths of whales. But that process, too, is on hold because of the shutdown.

Calls from The Associated Press to NOAA spokespeople were not returned. Some spokespeople for the agency have voicemail set up to say they will return to work when the shutdown is over.

Working around shutdown

Scott Landry, director of marine mammal entanglement response for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said a NOAA whale entanglement hotline is currently being forwarded to him, and he’s managing to pick up the slack so far. Rescue groups anticipated the shutdown and are working together to make do until it’s over, he said.

Also Read: The Great U.S. Government Shutdown

In Virginia, one of the state’s first responders for whale rescues is the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Resource Center in Virginia Beach. Mark Swingle, the aquarium’s director of research and conservation, said the center would not have “the usual assets we depend on to support the response” if it needs to assist an endangered whale.

That’s because NOAA staff and the Coast Guard would not be available, Swingle said.

“These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts,” he said. “Live strandings pose their own set of challenges that NOAA helps navigate appropriately.” (VOA)

Next Story

U.S. Has A Long To-Do List In Front Of Them

U.S. congressional lawmakers return to work this week with a lengthy agenda of contentious issues and only 41 legislative days left

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USA, Budget, Saudi Arabia, List, Gun
The Capitol Hill building is pictured in Washington, Sept. 5, 2019. (Photo: Diaa Bekheet) VOA

U.S. congressional lawmakers return to work this week with a lengthy agenda of contentious issues and only 41 legislative days left in the year to complete it.

Members of the U.S. Senate and House spent the past six weeks vacationing, taking official fact-finding trips and meeting with constituents and financial supporters. They now return to Capitol Hill facing problems that festered in their absence. Arguably the most pressing challenge will be funding the government ahead of the new fiscal year Oct. 1.

Here is a list of the problems that will keep lawmakers busy heading into the 2020 presidential and congressional election year.

Budget

Lawmakers have just 13 working days to pass a batch of spending bills before government funding runs out at the end of the current fiscal year Sept. 30.

USA, Budget, Saudi Arabia, List, Gun
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., smiles after vote on a hard-won budget deal that would permit the government to resume borrowing to pay all of its obligations and would remove the prospect of a government shutdown in October. VOA

Before the summer recess, the Democratic-controlled House passed 10 of the 12 annual appropriations bills to keep government departments and agencies operating and to fund defense and social service programs.

The Senate will immediately begin work on its version of the dozen spending bills.

In the unlikely event that both chambers manage to approve all 12 bills, House members and senators would have to reconcile differences in their bills before sending them to the White House for the president’s signature.

Congress and the president will almost certainly have to agree on one or more short-term funding bills to keep the government open until differences are worked out.

The last thing Republicans and Democrats want to see is a government shutdown heading into a crucial election year.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters that a short-term continuing resolution (CR) “would be no more than 60 days,” meaning that — just as in 2018 — Congress would run into a budget battle at the end of the year.

Gun control

While Congress was out of session, the nation was wracked by three high-profile mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that renewed the call for legislative action on gun control. Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer unsuccessfully urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to call the Senate back into session in August.

USA, Budget, Saudi Arabia, List, Gun
President Donald Trump speaks at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Sunday, Sept. 1, 2019, in Washington. VOA

The House Judiciary Committee plans to take action this week by drafting new gun control legislation that would, among other things, ban the sale of high-capacity bullet magazines.

The House passed background check legislation in February that has since languished in the Republican-controlled Senate. In the wake of the mass shootings, Democratic lawmakers called for the passage of “red flag laws” that allow law enforcement officials or family members to petition a court to remove weapons from high-risk individuals.

McConnell told radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview recently that “If the president is in favor of a number of things that he has discussed openly and publicly, and I know that if we pass it, it’ll become law, I’ll put it on the floor.”

But President Donald Trump has provided little clarity on what kind of gun control legislation he would sign, while seemingly towing the line of the National Rifle Association, which opposes any gun control measures.

Trump initially tweeted, “Guns should not be placed in the hands of mentally ill or deranged people,” only to criticize red flag laws in a subsequent tweet and warn that gun laws are “a slippery slope” that would lead to the end of the Second Amendment. Without the president’s political cover, Senate Republicans are highly unlikely to brave a risky battle to pass such legislation.

Impeachment

The House is returning to work with the majority of the Democratic caucus either calling for impeachment proceedings to begin or stating publicly the president’s actions are deserving of impeachment. To date, 137 of 235 House Democrats and Congressman Justin Amash — the chamber’s lone independent — support impeachment.

 

USA, Budget, Saudi Arabia, List, Gun
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 26, 2019. VOA
 Pelosi has so far resisted the push for impeachment, emphasizing the need to win public support for the effort. A July 30 Quinnipiac University poll found that 32% of voters supported Congress beginning the process of impeaching Trump, with 60% of voters saying it should not begin those proceedings.

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler muddled that message over the summer recess by telling CNN in an Aug. 8 interview that Democrats’ efforts to obtain evidence through numerous court filings already constituted “formal impeachment proceedings.”

But Democrats agree that a floor vote on impeachment cannot happen until rulings are handed down in numerous court cases in which Democrats are seeking key documents in the investigations into Trump’s finances and foreign dealings.

In the meantime, the House Judiciary Committee announced plans to investigate allegations Trump violated campaign finance laws by paying “hush money” to cover up affairs with adult film star Stormy Daniels and Playboy playmate Karen McDougal.

ALSO READ: Russia Accuses Facebook, Google of Election Interference

Additional issues

Lawmakers could also consider ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — a top priority of Trump’s.

In an August “Dear Colleagues” letter, Pelosi said the House working group was in discussion with the Trump administration about the need to include environmental protections, lower prescription drug costs and strong labor standards among other concerns before the agreement could come up for a vote.

The Senate will also vote on a two-part resolution that will allow lawmakers to demand greater oversight over Trump administration arms sales to Saudi Arabia. (VOA)