A NUMBER OF EVENTS over the past two weeks have probably gotten the full attention of the US lobster industry and increased pressure for it to take the lead in fighting the potential extinction of the North Atlantic right whale.
In response to the deaths of the endangered whale, including 12 in Canada last year, Canada has imposed new restrictions on ship speeds and snow crab fishing, as well as earmarked $1 million more annually to help free marine mammals from fishing gear.
In addition, survey teams on Saturday ended their aerial search for right whale calves off the southeastern US coast. For the first time since the spotters began their survey, in 1989, they recorded zero births this calving season. Last year only five births were recorded, well below what used to be the average of 15 per year. Last year there were 17 confirmed right whale deaths. Already this year, a 10-year-old female, who was just entering her breeding years, died after becoming entangled in fishing gear. She was discovered off Virginia.
There are only about 450 North Atlantic right whales, including about 100 breeding females. Females used to give birth every three to four years. Now they give birth only every eight years, if at all. Photographic evidence suggests that about 85 percent of right whales show signs of entanglement in fishing gear, which affects the whale’s fitness and is likely one of the reasons for the longer breeding cycle.
The $669 million lobster industry must assume a leadership role in solving a problem that it bears significant responsibility for creating. Entanglements occur in other fixed-gear fisheries, but the number of lobster trawls in the ocean swamps the other fisheries.
Lobstermen know the gear, the ocean, and how to adapt. And they know best how to save whales. They have already modified their gear to reduce their effects on large whales. They participate in gear research and continue to work with the Take Reduction Teams at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But it is time to acknowledge that these efforts are not enough. The industry needs to consider other ideas, including closing additional areas and reductions in trap limits as well as trying out lower-breaking-strength ropes or testing ropeless gear technology.
They don’t have to do it alone. Scientists are willing to share their knowledge of whale behavior and location. NGOs are willing to shake the bushes for funding to help implement changes. And I know from my time at NOAA that finding solutions is the agency’s highest priority.
The American lobster industry, not solely responsible, also cannot solely end whale mortalities in fishing gear. Our Canadian friends know that they cannot have a repeat of last year and have announced measures that are tough, fair, balanced, and equivalent to what the United States has had in place in our waters. They also announced a significant financial investment in further survey and research. In the United States, more than 25,000 miles of rope have been removed from the paths of whales. Along the Atlantic coast, 25,000 square miles of area have been closed to protect whales. But more needs to be done to save the right whales.
The decision on March 20, by the Marine Stewardship Council, to suspend the sustainability certification of Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence snow crab fishery because of its links to the deaths of the North Atlantic right whale is news the US lobster industry should take note of. As the word “extinction” gains currency, as the public sees photos of the gruesome injuries sustained by these whales, consumers may ask themselves if they want to participate in the species’ demise.
The right whales don’t care about our borders. They just want to live. They want to go about their business eating and reproducing without humans hitting them with ships or wrapping them up with fishing gear. We should want this too. Two hundred years ago, my ancestors and others from Nantucket and New Bedford thought these were the “right” whales to hunt. For New Englanders, and the lobster industry, they are now the right whales to save.
John Bullard retired as NOAA Fisheries regional administrator in January.