Seeing the bigger picture on right whales

By Jack Merrill

Someone should point out to the media that the right whale population has shown dramatic growth from the 1990s up until the last few years, when birth rates leveled off. Without a doubt, 2017 to 2019 was a terrible time period for them but, as pointed out by California marine scientist Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, this was due to entanglements occurring in Canada, caused by a snow crab fishery that had no whale-friendly regulations. No deaths can be, or ever have been, attributed to Maine lobster gear.

It is irresponsible for any scientist or oceanographer to take an extreme year (2017) and say that the population is headed to extinction. The bigger picture shows a much more hopeful story. After all, the population had grown from an estimated 264 to 481 in a remarkably short time. From 1990 to 2011, we saw the right whale population rebound and reproduce at a rate that was indicative of recovery. Their birth rates pointed to a long-term sustainable existence. 

It caught everyone off-guard when in recent years right whales changed their travel routes and primary habitats. Right whales depend on large quantities of copepods for nutrition. As copepod abundance shifted from one area to another (perhaps due to global warming) less food was available, and they had to travel farther to search for it. Clearly, this stress had a negative effect on birth rates. Further adding to their stressors, the new areas in Canada had more shipping traffic and contained fishing gear that didn’t come close to complying with the regulations that Maine lobstermen have adopted. The combination of ship strikes and snow crab gear entanglement was catastrophic, but it’s important to know that despite this from 1980 to 2020 the population has increased 56 percent (from 162 to 366) while other marine animal species have decreased rapidly (a 71 percent decline in sharks and rays worldwide).

It is frustrating that Maine lobstermen have no control over the environmental factors at work here. Equally frustrating, is that whales swim outside our territorial waters, so that no matter what we do, how expensive it is, or how much we try to protect the right whales, we can’t guarantee their safety. Obviously, both the Canadian fisheries and shipping industries needed to step up their efforts to protect them. Very recent changes in Canadian regulations indicate they’ve heard our concerns.

Maine lobstermen have already made numerous expensive and time-consuming changes to their gear to protect marine mammals. We’ve added weak links to buoy lines and all floating devices, made floating rope at the surface illegal, minimized knots, added multiple gear markers, eliminated 27,000 miles of floating rope between traps and trawled up, removing 2,700 miles of vertical lines.

The frustration of knowing that we haven’t negatively affected the right whale population, yet remain the primary target of environmental groups can be overwhelming and turn to anger. How can they hold us primarily responsible for the whales’ comeback?

The 60 percent vertical line reduction now proposed is supposed to be based on probability. How do Maine lobstermen reduce from the number of deaths and serious injuries to right whales when none are due to Maine gear? The proposed rule seems based on possibility, an imaginary world a long way from probability. Worse yet, proposed additional reductions over the next 10 years would result in a 98 percent reduction in vertical lines. Say goodbye to the most successful, responsible, and sustainable fishery in the world.

In addition to economic interests, whale scientists, environmental groups, whale watchers and fishermen have at least two other things in common. We all love the natural world that we live and work in. We all want the right whale to continue its slow journey away from near extinction to a point of sustainability. We should strive to work together to achieve that goal. 

Unfortunately, it’s become clear to me that the environmental groups that are pushing the fishery to extinction are more interested in their own agenda than the truth. The money they spend on lawsuits could be better spent on research, whale surveillance with drones and ways to prevent global pollution. Finally, on a positive note, everyone should know that since 2020 a very encouraging uptick in births has occurred with 27 right whale newborns reported.

Jack Merrill is a member of the Cranberry Isles Fishermen’s Co-Op, a Maine Lobstermen’s Association board member and an advisor to the Lobster Institute.

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