By Jack Merrill
In response to the dissemination of “misleading and false information” about the Maine lobster fishery and their interaction with right whales, not even the federal government (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Maine Fisheries Service) attributes a right whale death to the Maine fishery.
In fact, only two whales have ever been seen in Maine lobster gear and the last one was 18 years ago. A red marker found on gear in 2012 could have come from anywhere in New England. Maine lobstermen voluntarily changed their marker color to purple in 2020 to clearly differentiate themselves from the other New England states and to avoid any further allegations. Deaths and serious injuries in Maine lobster gear have remained constant at zero since right whale observations were initiated. To improve on that is impossible.
The scientific community now realizes why the time period from 2017 to 2019 was hard on the right whale population. They know that in those years the whales changed their travel routes and primary habitats. This was because their food source had moved due to global warming. They had to travel to search for it and clearly that stress had a negative effect on birthrates. Further stressing them, their food source was now in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, taking them through major shipping and cruise ship lanes and into waters where a Canadian snow crab fishery had existed for years. Canadian fishermen hadn’t adopted any of the gear modifications that Maine lobstermen had. Most devastating was that they fished floating rope to the surface (legally banned in Maine in 1997). Fortunately, recent changes in Canada have improved what was a toxic scenario. Significantly, in 2021 they purchased a search and rescue drone to monitor the right whale population.
Accurate right whale population counts are difficult to ascertain, but NOAA fails to give anyone confidence when it uses words like “minimum,” “conservative,” “assumed,” “estimated,” “theoretical” and “random” in its calculations. Most importantly, right whale calving rates have been increasing (seven in 2019, 10 in 2020, twenty in 2021 and at least 15 in 2022). That’s 52 newborns since the Canadian debacle. These newborns are not included in the population count until they are photographed and tagged (DNA sampling). Identification can’t be done until four or five months after birth because their head markings are not yet distinctive. DNA identification is difficult because of sea conditions and uncooperative animals. Both IDs require sightings and whales can go unseen for years.
Acoustic research, satellite surveillance or drone surveillance can easily answer population questions and travel patterns for northern right whales. Even taking into account three years of unprecedented hardship (2017-2019), NOAA’s right whale population estimates from 1980 to 2020 showed a 56 percent increase, while other marine species have declined significantly (“A 71 percent decline in sharks and rays worldwide”).
I would suggest that the most significant threats to the right whale’s comeback other than natural deaths due to old age or attacks by other marine animals are shipping, disease, toxins, pollutants and the overriding factor of climate change. Consider pollutants’ effect on the food chain, an example being the absorption of plastics by all levels of sea life. Another example recently appeared in the Boston Globe: “… manatees continue to die along Florida’s east coast because the sea grass on which they normally feed is disappearing. The main reason is polluted water from sources such as fertilizer runoff and wastewater discharges.”
Anyone paying attention should know that almost all animal populations on this planet are in decline due to human causes, pollution and loss of habitat being the primary reasons. While species have always gone in and out of existence, currently over a million are considered endangered. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), in theory, protects all of them, but doing so would displace hundreds of millions of people from their homes and workplaces. Selective use of the ESA to protect only individual species, such as right whales, is discriminatory. This is especially difficult for a fisherman like myself, with almost 50 years and approximately 80,000 hours of sea time, who has never seen a right whale
The northern right whale’s resilience is to be admired. That resilience can bring their numbers back just like the humpback whales that are no longer considered endangered. While blaming Maine lobstermen for their situation may raise money for certain groups, it does nothing to help these behemoths.
Jack Merrill is a member of the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-op, a Maine Lobstermen’s Association board director and an advisor to the Lobster Institute. He has a bachelor’s degree in marine biology.