The North Atlantic right whale population is hovering at the brink of failure, with around 400 surviving individuals.
In some years, there has been some population increase and in other years not. But the fact is that unintentional killing of right whales through both ship strikes and gear entanglements is preventing the population from increasing to a safer level and exacerbating the risk the entire species will go extinct.
Although the population increased between 1990 and 2010, since then it has begun another decline.
Although ship strikes have been implicated in three of the right whale deaths so far this year, gear entanglement is the primary threat to the animals. Scientists say that fully 85 per cent of the existing population has been entangled at least once and 59 per cent have been entangled more than once.
Entanglements are not always fatal, but they stress the animal and frequently females will stop calving after an entanglement.
Because of this, the The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is focusing on reducing entanglement as the primary mechanism for mitigating harm to right whales, as required by the Endangered Species Act.
What makes this problem so difficult is that lines for pots and stationary gillnets are used up and down the coast, from Florida to Maine and throughout the Maritimes in Canada. The fisheries they support, including lobster and snow crab, are the most valuable on the East Coast.
Whales can get tangled in any gear, including conch pots, gillnets or offshore lobster gear. They are not just entangled in lobster gear.
A survey of whales killed by fishing gear could not identify the source of the gear in almost all cases. The more diversified geographically spread out and variable a particular fishery is, the harder it is to develop and enforce gear regulations. The problem with mandating fewer ropes in the water, which is the goal NOAA is putting forward, is much more difficult than changing a mesh size in a net or closing a specific area.
A comparable problem with Steller sea lions in the Aleutians, where an endangered population was declining due to both natural causes and some fishery interactions, led to specific no-fishing zones and seasonal closed areas around certain rookeries. This took a monumental effort by both NOAA and the industry and yet sea lions are not migratory in the way whales are.
The North Atlantic right whale problem is a global warming problem. The temperature changes in the Atlantic are changing the distribution of their favoured prey, leading them to abandon traditional feeding grounds and seek new ones. This is what drove right whales into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where a record number of 17 were killed, mostly with gear, in 2017.
The problem becomes that when a fishing community says it’s not my gear, nine times out of 10 times they may be right.
Paul LePage, the former governor of Maine who represents everything I detest in a politician — anti-science, divisive, climate change denier, contemptuous of any disagreement and short-sighted, has written a letter to President Donald Trump that actually makes a series of valid points.
The problem with his letter is the tone — that this is a war between big environmentalist organizations and the lobster fishery. This is not a problem to be solved through a tribal or partisan lens.
LePage says “take action on known facts, not speculation. Use real data.”
This is good, as long as computer modeling is counted as real data, not speculation. Computer models are not wrong just because they provide a range of outputs, or that they depend on the quality of their input data. They are useful for providing an overview of a problem that goes beyond mere opinion that something should be done.
In the case of right whales, it is modeling that suggests the need to reduce the number of trap lines in the water to change the risk profile for right whales.
LePage says “identify what else has changed in the whale’s habitat since 2010, since lobstering hasn’t.”
This is a valid point because the right whale population increased 74 per cent from 1990 to 2010, during which time the U.S. lobster industry implemented changes like weaker ropes and sinking lines. Since 2010, whale populations have been declining, but it is not obvious how lobster industry practices are involved with that since the Maine coast is not prime right whale habitat.
He argues that high numbers of lobster lines in an area not frequented by whales are less of a threat than a few gillnet or conch pot lines in an area heavily frequented by whales. Again, this is a valid point.
Unfortunately, as long as the Endangered Species Act remains the law of the land, NOAA has no choice but to take action if it is to continue to be a lawful agency.
Given that United Nations scientists say that upwards of one million species may go extinct unless the impacts of climate change are mitigated, this is no time to retreat from the idea of protecting species from going extinct.
The law requires NOAA take action to mitigate harm to threatened species. It does not say all harm or the most important harm, but simply anything that contributes to a further decline has to be eliminated through regulation. This means that the burden of response will fall across all sectors, regardless of whether they proportionally contribute to the problem or not. All of the potential mitigating factors take money.
This means that subsidies must exist for ropeless gear — that those who use the gear must be able to operate in closed areas and that research on whale feeding, migration and entanglement has to be increased by orders of magnitude.
For example, when sea birds were being killed by floating longline bait hooks, the industry adopted a rapid sinking hook that was hugely successful in eliminating a bycatch of albatross and other sea birds.
With right whales, scientists don’t know how precisely they get entangled.
One theory is that when they find themselves first in contact with a line, they tend to roll away, which can make the situation worse. There may be other behaviour issues that would lead to less interaction between whales and rope lines. But there has to be funding to research these kinds of problems.
The right whale decline is an international problem, involving both the U.S. and Canada. NOAA only can regulate what happens in the U.S.
The whales migrate for thousands of miles a year and their migration patterns are changing. The Gulf of Maine is a small part of their range and there are indications that with the changes in water temperatures and prey availability, they are spending less time in and around the Gulf of Maine.
Although the lobster industry is visible and regulated, there are thousands of small trap and gillnet operations up and down the East Coast that don’t use weak ropes or sinking lines and that could be contributing to the problem.
There is not enough funding available anywhere to do the animal studies scientists would like to fully understand population and migratory patterns. A North Atlantic right whale seen in Cape Cod Bay in March was recently videoed off the coast of France.
There is no ‘my way or the highway’ approach to protecting right whales. To the extent that whale protection advocates recognize this and to the extent that the lobster industry also recognizes this, NOAA may be able to thread the needle.
But if it is attacked as a rogue agency out to bureaucratize a problem, the situation for the lobster industry will only get worse. The American public will not stand for a fishery that refuses to address conservation concerns.
This article was republished with permission of John Sackton and seafood.com.