Last century, governments around the world came together to reduce commercial whaling, culminating in 1982 with the International Whaling Commission’s worldwide moratorium on that cruel and outmoded practice. Since the ban, cooperation among governments, conservationists, researchers and others have led to impressive recoveries for many threatened whale populations worldwide.
Today, just off our shores, Mainers face another historic threat to marine life that will require the same kind of commitment and creativity to solve.
Unfortunately, the North Atlantic right whale, a species whose ancient migratory pathway leads through Maine’s waters, is in crisis. The fate of this species, of which an estimated 411 individuals and fewer than 100 breeding females remain, depends not only on increased action from the governments of the U.S. and Canada, but also on the cooperation, coordination and creative collaboration of the fishing industry and responsible conservationists.
The North Atlantic right whale is among the most endangered marine species in the world. While commercial hunting of right whales ended in 1936, human activity remains the most serious threat to their survival. A recent study led by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that between 2003-2018, 70 right whales died in U.S. and Canadian waters, and 88.4 percent of the known causes of death were a direct result of human-induced trauma, namely entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes.
These human-induced deaths are nothing short of horrific. A vessel strike is a brutal and painful way to die, causing blunt force trauma that can lead to skull and vertebrae fractures, blubber and muscle contusions, and massive hemorrhage.
Entanglements are particularly gruesome. When entangled in fishing gear, right whales become laden with hundreds of pounds of plastic fishing line and/or heavy fishing traps, preventing them from swimming, diving or feeding normally. Entanglements can cause severe lacerations, partial flipper amputations, and chronic infections, slowly killing the whale. Some whales struggle for months before dying of their wounds or starvation. For some females, entanglements leave them exhausted and unable to bring calves to term, exacerbating an alarmingly low reproduction rate for the species.
With so few remaining, every human-caused right whale mortality is a major blow to recovery. The eight recorded North Atlantic right whale deaths since June further demonstrate that urgent intervention is needed to end this crisis.
If they are to survive, North Atlantic right whales need the help and ingenuity of another iconic New England species: Maine lobstermen. There is hope. East coast mariners have already shown us how innovation, technology, proactive leadership, and collaborative measures — including reporting of whale sightings, reducing ship speeds, and redrawing shipping lanes — can significantly reduce deaths. And New England lobstermen have recently signaled their willingness to consider sensible gear and fishing reforms to protect the right whale from extinction.
For that to happen, Maine and the other coastal states must work together to enact meaningful changes that will set an example for our provincial neighbors to the north, prime the market for “whale-safe” lobster, and level the regulatory playing field for fishermen on both sides of the border.
Additionally, more research is needed to improve fishing technology, including accelerated development of “ropeless” fishing gear, a promising potential solution. For generations, we believed a telephone would never work without a wire. Surely, in 2019 we can build lobster traps that ensure a prosperous industry and improve the chances of survival for the right whale.
Federal regulators and fishing industry groups both sometimes seem to insist we must choose between a healthy lobster industry and the survival of the North Atlantic right whale. We don’t. Robust right whale populations and thriving coastal fishing communities are not separate causes, they are inextricably linked. Fresh thinking, bold action and genuine collaboration among governments, conservationists and industry, can deliver both and bring “America’s whale” back from the brink of extinction.
Kathleen Savesky is a resident of Maine and the immediate past board chair of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.