By Russell Wray
People in Maine have been bombarded by misinformation regarding the right whale/lobster gear entanglement issue for some time now. This misleading and false information has been coming mostly from the Maine lobster industry, steadfast in its denial, and has been repeated time and again by Maine politicians and media.
One recent example was the commentary that appeared in the Islander last week titled “COVID-19 saves right whales by sinking cruise ships,” which could lead readers to wrongly believe entanglements don’t threaten the whale’s continued existence.
The writer not only repeats some of the usual falsehoods, but comes up with a very original one of his own. Referring to the right whale population, which scientists now estimate at fewer than 340, he states “…the actual scientific facts add up to a booming population of almost 900 whales.”
Of all the whales, these whales are one of the most studied. Scientists base their estimates on hundreds of annual aerial surveys from Canada to Florida, on thousands of other sightings, and on tens of thousands of photographs of individual whales.
It would be wonderful if there really were almost 900 right whales, but unfortunately, it’s simply not true.
Another claim made by the writer is that there has not been one death from lobster gear in the U.S. But again, this is not true.
In 2002, right whale #3107, a female born the previous year, stranded dead in Nantucket, having died as a result of entanglement in U.S. inshore lobster gear.
In 2004, right whale #3346, a one year old male known as Kingfisher, was sighted entangled in Maine lobster gear. Kingfisher carried that gear for 11 years and has not been seen since 2015 when he was sighted in very poor health with deep, open wounds in his entangled flipper. He is now presumed dead.
And in 2012, right whale #4193, a two year old male, was found dead off of Florida with a buoy and line determined to be northeast nearshore lobster gear, with a red marker consistent with marks used by Maine lobstermen.
So there have in fact been known mortalities resulting from U.S. lobster gear. But it is important to understand that due to lax gear marking requirements and a low rate of gear retrieval, scientists can only determine where less than 2 percent of documented right whale entanglements occurred and from what fishery. Therefore, these mortalities that are known are likely a tiny fraction of the actual number, especially given that the U.S. lobster fishery accounts for the vast majority of fixed gear endlines along the U.S. Atlantic coast, with the greatest density in waters off Maine.
Between 2003 and 2018, from Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the cause of death was determined for 43 right whales, 38 of which were human-caused. Of those 38, 22 were due to entanglements and 16 from vessel strike.
A 2021 scientific paper estimates that for every known right whale mortality, at least two others go unobserved, and those resulting from entanglements significantly outnumber vessel strikes. That isn’t to say vessel strikes aren’t a serious threat for these whales; they definitely are. However, entanglements remain the leading cause of serious injury and deaths for right whales.
NOAA Fisheries is legally bound, and we as a society are morally bound, to ensure a bright future for these whales as well as the lobster industry. The public wants lobster that hasn’t been caught while harming right (and other) whales.This will only be possible if we rid ourselves of denial and begin facing the facts.
Russell Wray lives in Hancock.