The Cost Of Snow Crabs

“I know you think I am tasty. But how about letting me, and all the vulnerable right whales out there live in peace.”

North Atlantic right whales have been dying in unusual numbers this year (14 or more so far). For a population that is endangered and numbers around 500 individuals, this is a rate that is highly threatening to the future of the population.

I’ve already touched on this ongoing tragedy. But I am coming back to it because detail is important in understanding the impact of choices we make on the planet. And a dead North Atlantic right whale was just towed ashore. A necropsy will be performed, but there is not really any mystery. The poor animal was thoroughly trussed up by lines from a snow crab trap:

The animal was tightly wrapped in heavy ropes, and deep cuts were apparent in its body, mouth, fins and blubber.

Local people who saw the whale towed by the Canadian Coast Guard said a large snow crab net had to be cut off the carcass after it was brought ashore.

Not a nice way to go, and even worse the dead whale appears to be a female, so that is yet another breeder removed from a tenuous population. But the point I really want to make here is: snow crabs? Is it so important that we be able to eat snow crabs that this result can be tolerated? I don’t think so. I’ve never eaten one? Have you? If you have, I am sure it tasted good. But I am also sure that your life would not be altered in any meaningful way if you never had the option of putting a snow crab on your plate. Yet, an important, gentle and sublime species of whale is being threatened by this industry.

In any moral calculus, I can imagine some human needs that are so great that impacts on other species are justified and understandable. But it is simply not possible to suggest that our taste for snow crab (or any of the other fisheries that keep entangling whales) can justify the ongoing winnowing of a majestic whale population. Yes, fishermen need to earn a living and take care of their families. But we need to get a lot smarter about helping fishermen and others transition from industries that can’t be justified in light of their impacts on the natural world.

For this, and many other reasons, I don’t think most of the human population needs to eat any fish or crabs. Even in a world that does eat from the sea snow crabs can easily be taken off the menu. And if we aren’t more thoughtful and rigorous about what we eat and how it impacts the rest of the planet we will casually, and without thought, eat our way through much of the beauty and wonder that this planet offers us.

Right Whale Diaries

Three highlights from the annual Cape Cod right whale stopover:

  1. Early arrival: Cape Cod Bay is an important mid-winter and early spring feeding ground for North Atlantic right whales. Historically, they show up around February or March and stay until May. This year, there were right whales in the Bay at Thanksgiving. A few stragglers wouldn’t be unheard of, but the number of early arrivals this year was remarkable.
  2. Wart and her calf: Despite her unflattering name, Wart’s story is movie-worthy. For reasons not fully understood, North Atlantic right whales have suffered from low reproductive rates (not a good strategy for rebuilding a population hunted to the brink of extinction). But not Wart. For years, she produced calves at regular, three-year intervals. Then, in 2008, she got tangled in fishing gear. She dragged it around for three yearsbefore being freed, only to disappear. No one had seen her for two years until this January, when she showed up in Cape Cod Bay with a new calf – a cause for celebration, but also concern because a baby so young had never been seen this far north. And then, they disappeared again (maybe they headed south?). The story has a happy ending, though. Wart and her calf were sighted again May 1st.
  3. The end of right whale surveys? Researchers at Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies have been keeping tabs on right whales in Cape Cod Bay for going on three decades – conducting boat-based and aerial surveys, learning their behaviors, and examining their diet. The program has yelded invaluable insights. Unfortunately, due to government budget cuts, the future of the program is in jeopardy.
North Atlantic right whale, Wart, with her weeks-old calf in January, 2013.Credit Allison Henry / NEFSC under Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies NOAA permit #14603


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