By Penelope Overton
Portland Press Herald
PORTLAND — The future continues to grow ever darker for the highly endangered right whale, a species that has been in decline every year since 2010 and is at the heart of regulatory protection efforts threatening to upend Maine’s valuable lobster fishery.
The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium estimates only 409 whales survived 2018, down from about 428 in 2017 and 457 in 2016. With seven births and 10 documented deaths in 2019 factored in, that tally is now probably about 406. Three of those are about to succumb to injuries.
“We are in yet another year of decline for the right whales,” said Mark Baumgartner, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and chairman of the consortium, which kicked off its annual right whale meeting Thursday in Portland. “This is extremely concerning.”
The meeting attracted hundreds of scientists, policymakers, animal rights advocates and several dozen curious fishermen. Topics ranged from new developments in how to safely tag a right whale to a review of right whale deaths in 2019 to the impact of whale-related fishery closures in Canada.
On Wednesday, a small group of consortium members met behind closed doors with tech developers to talk about advances in ropeless fishing, which prevents whale entanglement by eliminating buoy lines. Maine fishermen have their doubts, however, and argue that even if it can be perfected it will be too expensive.
Friday’s session was closed, as well, to allow consortium members to share work that is not yet published.
But on Thursday, most of the presentations underscored the sense of urgency in the work being done to save a whale that regulators say is so close to extinction that even one death a year is too many and may push the species beyond hope of recovery.
If governments do not act quickly, the North Atlantic right whale could follow the path of the vaquita, a small Gulf of California harbor porpoise that is now functionally extinct, Baumgartner said. Researchers say that species numbers between six and 22 individuals.
The vaquita numbered over 500 in 1997, Baumgartner said. The population collapsed as the result of an illegal gillnet fishery that targeted another species that shares its habitat and has a swim bladder that is highly valued on the Chinese herbal medicine market, he said.
“When you have a very small population, it can get away from you very fast,” Baumgartner said. “It can tank very fast. I hope we’re not in that situation with the right whales, but we have a population that has been declining every year since 2010. I am concerned we are on this kind of trajectory.”
Take the case of Punctuation, a 40-year-old female right whale killed by ship strike in June in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Baumgartner said. She was not unusual, he said. She had been entangled in fishing gear five times and was hit by a ship once before the collision that finally killed her.
Punctuation, so named for the small scars on her head that scientists say looked like commas, delivered eight calves. Three are believed dead, one from a ship strike and two disappeared. Two of her daughters had daughters of their own, he said, and one was killed by a ship strike.
“If this was happening to your family, you’d be thinking something was wrong,” he said.
The consortium’s annual report card showed the endangered species to be in bad shape due to increased vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement. Proposals to adopt new restrictions on the lobster industry to protect the whale have sparked debate that seeped into the consortium’s lineup of speakers.
Patrice McCarron, the executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, gave a numbers-soaked presentation to explain why the state’s largest lobster trade group had pulled its support for a proposal to protect whales by reducing the number of buoy lines in the Gulf of Maine by 50 percent.
McCarron said Maine lobstermen want to find ways to protect the whale, but feel it is unfair for a federal whale plan to hold the state’s lobster industry responsible for saving a species when federal data shows that other fisheries, like Canadian snow crab and U.S. gill netting, are linked to more harm.
The Lobsterman’s Association is committed to a collaborative process, but not the plan it agreed to under pressure back in April.
In response, Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium gave a scientific rebuttal of the association’s data, arguing that the mistakes McCarron cited in federal data were small, changing the overall risk calculations by 1.7 percent, and that fishing gear entanglement remains the prevailing cause of death.
Early next year, the National Maine Fisheries Service expects to publish a proposed regulation to protect the right whale from fishing gear entanglement. The agency will consider several proposals to protect the whale, including additional closures to buoy line fisheries.
Such closures would leave the door open to lobster fishermen willing to give up vertical buoy lines to give ropeless fishing a try in these protected areas, said Michael Asaro, the head the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office’s marine mammal group.
Even though the chance of entanglement in U.S. fishing gear may be low, regulators say the death of even one right whale a year could push the species to extinction, given its low number of breeding-age females and the increasing amount of time that now passes between births.
Scientists documented 10 right whale deaths in 2019, while noting that more whales probably died but have yet to be detected. Nine of the whales that died in 2019 were found floating in Canadian waters. One found dead off New York was entangled in Canadian fishing gear.
The North Atlantic right whale has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when it bottomed out at about 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but a combination of low birth rates and deaths from ship strikes and fishing line entanglements have sent its numbers tumbling, yet again.
Whaling decimated the species in the 1880s because it was the “right” whale to hunt – it was slow moving and floated after being killed.