Over the years I’ve been increasingly frustrated by how effective the environmental community is in selling its side of the right whale story to the public, seamlessly ignoring so many of the known threats to right whales and putting a singular focus on lobstering. Their story has become so pervasive that it is difficult for the press to fully understand the reality of what is actually happening.
A recent story published in The New York Times, “Northern Right Whales on the Brink, and Trump Could Be Their Last Hope,” is a sad testament to this campaign of misinformation. With the right whale population estimated at less than 410, it is important to address every known right whale death and serious injury. The New York Times article would lead the public to believe that the U.S. has not been proactive in requiring its commercial fishermen to take action to protect right whales and that the U.S., ironically, should look to Canada for guidance on this issue, despite the majority of right whales dying in Canadian waters. Sadly, this message will only delay meaningful protection for right whales.
It is simply mind boggling to me that a prominent publication could publish such a conclusion. The author is seduced by the compelling story sold by the environmental community and in response ignores and misinterprets the facts. The article makes many errors about the basic facts related to the threats facing right whales. Its author writes, “About 20 of the 31 right whales found dead since 2017 were in Canadian waters, according to NOAA.” Yet somehow she concludes, “that Canada recently issued wide-ranging protections…. If the United States does not take comparable steps, conservationists say, it is essentially allowing the species to go extinct.”
I have to ask: Who in their right mind would recommend that the U.S. adopt a management program that resulted in the death of 23 right whales (not “about 20”) since 2017? By contrast, only four right whale deaths have been attributed to U.S. commercial fisheries over the past 20 years, with the last confirmed death in U.S. lobster gear occurring 18 years ago.
The full accounting of right whale deaths since 2017 reveals that U.S. commercial fishermen are not the culprits: 23 right whale deaths were attributed to Canada (8 vessel strikes, 6 entanglements and 9 undetermined), six were attributed to the U.S. (2 vessel strikes and 4 undetermined causes) and two were undetermined deaths, without a distinguishing feature to tie them to a particular fishery or country.
The article contains many major factual errors. The author writes, “right whales are dying at an alarming rate, from ship strikes and entanglement in lobster and fishing gear.” All I can say is “Wow!” Why does everyone refuse to look at the data? Based on NOAA data, the last known right whale mortality attributed to U.S. lobster gear occurred in 2002, long before comprehensive entanglement mitigation measures were put in place.
The author also states that despite the number of whales known to have died in Canada over the last three years, “more whales were seriously injured by entanglements in the United States, mostly off the coast of Maine.” This is blatantly false as data are clear that there are no known cases of right whales becoming seriously injured or killed in Maine lobster gear, ever. Thanks to the efforts of Fred Bever at Maine Public, the author subsequently ran a correction, stating “more whales were seriously injured by entanglements in the United States, many off the coast of Massachusetts.”
In my review of NOAA entanglement data since 2017, more right whales were sighted entangled (or seriously injured) in Canada than in the U.S. While these data are incomplete, it seems highly unlikely that the author had access to additional information upon which to base her statement.
The author then goes on to give high praise to the Canadians for implementing dynamic area management closures and conducting trials of ropeless fishing. She never acknowledges that Canada didn’t even begin to make a regulatory effort to protect right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence until 2018, after 12 right whales had died, or that their program thus far has failed miserably. An additional ten right whales died in Canada last year. And as in Canada, U.S. lobstermen who have lost access to important fishing grounds due to right whale closures are testing ropeless fishing technology. Though it will be extremely challenging to use this technology in those closed areas and impossible to implement on a large scale, U.S. lobstermen are testing it.
The author also ignores the fact that the U.S. has been building a comprehensive right whale protection program since the late 1990’s, more than twenty years ago! She appears unaware that the U.S. implemented dynamic area management during the 2000’s but stopped because it triggered the removal of fishing gear after whales were sighted and often resulted in gear being moved out of an area long after whales had moved on. Instead of measures that don’t work, the U.S. has a far more aggressive right whale protection plan in place.
First, where there are predictable large gatherings of right whales, on the scale of what Canada now experiences in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the U.S. closes the fishery. Period. No gear in the water prior to the arrival of the right whales, and no gear in the water until the whales have left the area. Second, in areas whales are not known to frequent but may transit through, the U.S. requires a suite of gear modifications for all fixed gear fisheries along the Atlantic coast to reduce the likelihood that a whale would be harmed if it were to encounter this gear. Maine lobstermen are very familiar with these measures, which include no floating line at the surface, weak links at the top of buoy lines, sinking rope between traps, minimum numbers of traps on a trawl, and gear marking.
The U.S. measures have been successful. There have been only two confirmed right whale deaths in U.S. fishing gear over the last ten years. I repeat: two.
The MLA submitted a letter to the editor of The New York Times in an effort to set the record straight that the U.S., not Canada, has been more effective in protecting right whales. Maine Department of Marine Resources also submitted a letter. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to get published in the New York Times, so it is unlikely that either letter (which is limited to only 175 words!) will ever see the light of day. Instead, I have included MLA’s letter below so you know that we put forward our best effort to get the truth into that paper.
The MLA will continue to do all it can to educate the public on what is really happening with right whales. Two right whale calves were struck by vessels in 2020 already; one died and the other was seriously wounded. I shudder to think of the hammer that would fall on lobstermen if those were a result of interactions with lobster gear rather than vessel strikes. What sort of hammer, I wonder, will fall on the shipping industry as a result?
Clearly, lobstermen cannot save this species on their own. The sooner everyone works together to identify measures to effectively address vessel strikes and entanglement interactions in Canada and across all U.S. fisheries, the sooner right whales will have a fighting chance to recover. In the meantime, if the environmental community is serious about getting right whales the relief and intervention they deserve, they should work with the fishing industry to identify appropriate actions that thousands of fishermen can actually implement and thus achieve widespread compliance, rather than threatening fishermen with closures and ropeless fishing. It is a fact, as incontrovertible as the number of right whales that have died in Canadian waters, that if there is no buy-in and compliance from fishermen, North Atlantic right whales will not get the meaningful protections on the water that they so clearly need.
As always, stay safe on the water
Letter to the editor, The New York Times
Letters the editor are limited to 175 words
“Northern Right Whales Are on the Brink, and Trump could be Their Last Hope,” July 10, wrongly asserted the U.S. is neglecting endangered North Atlantic right whales and mistakenly promoted Canadian efforts that failed to protect them.
The U.S. began its robust whale protections in the 1990s and is working do more. The last right whale death from U.S. lobster gear occurred in 2002. The only entanglement in Maine lobster gear also occurred in 2002 and that right whale was sighted healthy in 2019. Only one right whale has ever been sighted seriously injured off of Maine.
In stark contrast, Canada’s first entanglement mitigation began in 2017. In Canadian waters, 23 right whales have died and two more have been seriously injured over the last three years. Advocating that the U.S. should follow Canada’s lead where 25 right whales were recently killed or seriously harmed is just not credible.
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association continues to work with government officials to balance the demands of our business and make our fishery ever safer for right whales.
Executive director, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association