There can be no doubt that the North Atlantic right whale is in danger of extinction. By all counts, the population of whales is just a handful more than 400. The number of whales born each year has dropped precipitously. Scientists say the whale population cannot afford the death of even one whale annually — that statistical calculation is .9 whales per year — but during the past several years the number of whales killed, or seriously injured, has risen far above that level.
What to do?
The greatest dangers to right whales come from being hit by ships or getting tangled up in fishing gear. Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service introduced a series of proposals aimed at reducing the risk of entanglement by 60 percent. Those measures could force Maine’s lobster industry to reduce the number of vertical endlines — the lines that connect traps on the seafloor to buoys on the surface — by 50 percent. Those lines would also be required to have a reduced breaking strength so that entangled whales could break free.
For lobstermen who fish in water too shallow for whales, where traps set on the bottom are visible from the boat, even the least burdensome of the proposed rules seem ridiculous. For the lobstermen who fish farther offshore in deeper waters, the proposals would make fishing more dangerous and more expensive. For the endangered right whales, it’s unlikely the proposals really would do much.
According to the Maine Lobstermen’s Association analysis of data compiled by the Fisheries Service relating to serious injury and mortality to right whales from known human causes for the years 2010 through 2018, 31 percent were attributable to the Canadian snow crab fishery and 48 percent were attributable to U.S. or Canadian vessel strikes. Only 8 percent resulted from entanglement in trap or pot fishing gear, half of which could not be identified as to what fishery it came from.
None of the gear was conclusively identified as coming from the Maine lobster fishery. There appear to be two reasons for that.
First, changes to fishing rules in 2009 and 2014 forced lobstermen to modify their gear. They now use sinking rope that is less likely to entangle whales feeding near the sea bottom to connect their traps together in “trawls.” Second, right whales seem to have shifted away from the warming waters of the Gulf of Maine towards cooler Canadian waters following the movement of the tiny copepods that form the whales’ principal diet.
No one doubts that right whales need protection if they are to survive. The question Maine lobstermen are asking is what is accomplished by taking rope that doesn’t tangle up right whales out of waters where they don’t swim?
It may be that, like Ahab’s pursuit of the Great White Whale, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service effort to protect the North Atlantic right whale is doomed to failure, at least if relies primarily on forcing Maine lobstermen to make radical changes in how they fish in waters the whales rarely frequent.