Right Whales Vs The Lobstering Industry

Right whales and fishing gear do not go well together. (NOAA Photo Library)

And right whales may finally get some protection:

A federal district court judge ruled last week that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect right whales adequately from the risks posed by lobster fishing.

It is too early to know exactly how the ruling in a lawsuit brought by a group of environmental organizations will affect the lobster industry. U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg asked those groups and NOAA to file briefs suggesting an appropriate “injunctive remedy” against further violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Good. It’s long past time for the interests of other species to be valued and considered outside a human commercial frame, and the Endangered Species Act is a powerful legal imperative to do just that. The lobstering industry is already challenged by change (and now COVID-19). Now it will also have to figure out a way to stop putting down gear that entangles and kills right whales. All this probably means a smaller industry and fewer lobstermen, which will be a rough transition. But if state and federal aid can help ease that transition, the world will become a better place for right whales (and lobster).

The Link Between Dead Northern Right Whales And Fishing Entanglement Only Gets More Clear

Snow Crab Cocktail: You can’t see it, but there is some dead right whale in there somewhere.

CBC News continues its invaluable and revealing series on the fate of the North Atlantic right whale. According to a post-summer, post-mortem, at least seven right whales got entangled with fishing lines in the Gulf Of St. Lawrence this summer. Two died, two were freed, two have fates unknown, and one freed itself. And this is just part of a devastating tally overall:

At least 14 whales have died in the Atlantic Ocean this summer, including at least 11 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. No more than 500 of the animals remain.

According to Hamilton’s research, only one in four or five carcasses washes ashore, meaning the true death toll could be much higher.

“If that were the case, then we’ve just lost a big chunk of the population,” said Hamilton, who described the deaths as “profoundly discouraging.”

So far, the federal government has closed a crab fishery early and is forcing large ships to slow down in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

What the Canadian government won’t do is commit to requiring changes to fishing gear. Or closing the fisheries which are killing whales.

What would work? Consumer (and restaurant) avoidance of snow crabs, which is the fishery that seems to be doing the most damage.

Most people don’t think much about the upstream impacts of their food choices. Even if they wanted to the issues are obscure and complex, especially when it relates to fisheries. That’s why there is only one clear principle you can rely on: giving up all seafood is the only way to guarantee you are not having any upstream impacts that are killing and endangering other wildlife.

 

Inadvertent Whaling

An interesting study recently confirmed something sad that I have suspected for years: that despite the fact that humans are actively trying to protect whales in the North Atlantic, human culture and human lifestyles are so intrusive and damaging that we still end up killing whales.

This comes from a story in Nature:

Human activity is still killing right whales, one of the most endangered animals in the ocean. An analysis of four decades of whale deaths shows that attempts to prevent them have not had a demonstrable impact.

Only around 460 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are thought to be swimming the waters off the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. The governments of both countries have implemented several measures to protect whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear or being hit by ships, such as the US ‘ship strike rule’ that limits vessel speeds in certain areas. That rule came into force in 2008 and is due to expire next year.

Marine-mammal researchers Julie van der Hoop and Michael Moore, both at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and their colleagues, analysed all known deaths of eight species of large whale in the northwest Atlantic between 1970 and 2009. During that time 122 right whales died, along with 473 humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae), 257 fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and scores of whales of other species. When the authors were able to assign a cause of death, ‘human interactions’ was the most common, appearing in 67% of cases. Entanglement in fishing gear was the main cause of death in this category.

The protection measures seem to have had no impact on whale deaths, according to the study published online in Conservation Biology1. Although several of the rules were implemented only towards the end of the study period, Moore still admits that the finding is “hugely disappointing”.

We can decry the age of whaling, in which humans were wiping whales out one after the other. But that was an age when the killing was both intentional and highly technological. It’s almost scarier to think that the way humans live today means that whales die, even though we (mostly) don’t want them to. In other words, there is something deeply wrong about the way in which we live today.

The main culprit appears to be our fishing practices, which are egregious enough in terms of what they do to fish stocks, quite apart from how they affect whales (and all the other species which also become collateral damage).

I feel the same way about industrial fishing as I do about industrial farming, though industrial fishing does not seem to attract the same intense opposition–perhaps because fish are not considered as intelligent and sentient as farm animals. But that certainly doesn’t mean that industrial fishing isn’t as environmentally shortsighted, and criminally wasteful (and in many instances it is cruel, as well).

But whatever you think about the emotional lives of ocean fish, and the moral issues around killing them, it’s hard not to sympathize with whales that get entangled or killed by fishing equipment. And judging from the reaction of this humpback, anything we can do to further limit the damage to whales from fishing would be much appreciated.