It’s horrifying that humans are the reason the iconic North Atlantic right whale is on the brink of extinction. Yet in one meaningful way, it’s also encouraging. If we are the cause, we can choose to be the solution.
Fishing gear entanglements and vessel strikes account for most whale injuries and deaths, while climate change has altered whales’ feeding habits — leading to a terrible cycle of yet more gear entanglements and vessel strikes. The right whale is now one of the most endangered large whale species in the world; only about 400 are left. Worse, there are fewer than 100 breeding females.
Amid Earth’s ongoing sixth mass extinction — affecting birds, bees, butterflies, and far too many other essential species to name — the right whale is of particular importance not only to people but the world. The reason? The snowball effect of trophic cascade.
As mammals, whales must surface to breathe. While there, they release plumes of nutrient-rich waste. Microscopic plankton feed on that waste, and, in turn, plankton serve as a food source for krill and other marine animals — which are then gobbled by yet more fish and mammals, including humans.
But that’s not all. Right whales, humpback whales, sperm whales, blue whales all move vertically through the water column, diving deep to feed and then rising to the surface to breathe, churning waters and carrying with them plankton and nutrients throughout the ocean’s layers. These leviathans have an enormous impact on ocean health. It’s estimated marine plants, such as plankton, produce about 70 percent of Earth’s oxygen. Plankton and other marine plants produce oxygen in part by absorbing carbon dioxide, which is released by burning fossil fuels, a main driver of climate change. The next time you take a breath, you can thank the whales that help to make it possible. Bottom line: Whales are essential to a healthy ocean, and a healthy ocean is essential to healthy humans.
Fortunately, we know how to save right whales. Even more fortunate, the solutions are fairly simple. All it takes is money.
The first step is to fund North Atlantic right whale researchers to track the whales’ new swimming routes, believed to be caused by climate change. Such tracking would encompass local, national, and international waters, and the cooperation of governments, industries, boaters, and nongovernmental organizations to see where the whales go and establish safe boating routes. Fortunately, there’s a precedent for this. In 2002, such a consortium rerouted vessels in the Bay of Fundy, reducing strikes on right whales by 90 percent. Today, vessel strikes account for only about 18 percent of right whale deaths.
Thanks to right whale researchers, we know that 82 percent of documented whale deaths are due to gear entanglement. Research has shown that fixed fishing gear such as lobster lines, which hang in the water column, pose a particular risk. While reduced-strength rope may help — by breaking at vulnerable points between buoys at the surface and lobster pots along the floor — entanglements can still cause drag as a whale swims and, worse, when it dives in search of food. A better solution is ropeless technology being studied right here in Boston at the New England Aquarium. A startup company with a local presence, Ashored, is among several companies developing ropeless gear.
The tools to develop and use ropeless technology already exist. The problem? Funding — for both the research and retrofitting of the lobster industry’s gear. The first few generations of this essential technologically advanced gear will be cost-prohibitive for the men and women who have already been hard hit by federal fishing regulations (made necessary by human threats) that are destroying their livelihoods. Few appreciate a healthy ocean more than fishers, which helps explain why they’ve been working hand in hand with scientists for years to find solutions to this and other threats.
Now it’s the responsibility of Congress and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to step up and fund the necessary research and gear advances before North Atlantic right whales, integral to the survival of so many other species, disappear forever. It’s our duty to save them — and ourselves.
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