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.

 

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.