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Guest Column: Owning up to our part in plight of right whales

Published in the Portland Press Herald, reprinted with permission

It’s time we all own up to the plight of the North Atlantic right whale. Fishing industry advocates, conservationists and editorial boards have all weighed in on the controversy around the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s newly announced and stiffer-than-expected restrictions on lobster and crab fishing in the Gulf of Maine. These are intended to stave off the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale by lowering entanglement risks. Emotions run high on both sides of the issue, as the fishing industry argues it is being unfairly targeted just as conservation groups say the regulations don’t go far enough.

But where do the scientists — the oceanographers, biologists and fishery scientists who often work in partnership with both sides — stand on this issue? We argue that it is on all of us, as a society, to contribute to the solution to this problem. It is unfair for the lobster industry to bear a disproportional share of the burden and blame when there is compelling evidence to suggest the problem and, thus, solutions, involve more than lobster fishing.

While the debate continues over how many right whale deaths are caused by lobster gear, the scientific evidence for the toll taken by climate-related ocean change is mounting. A scientific analysis ominously titled “Ocean regime shift is driving the collapse of the North Atlantic right whale population,” published this month in the journal Oceanography, is the latest evidence directly linking climate-related changes in the northwest Atlantic marine ecosystem to declines in the planktonic foods on which right whales depend. The authors cite multiple indicators of poor right whale health: fat reserves, growth rates, calving rates and survival, all in decline. This evidence throws into the question the degree to which recent downward trends in right whale health can be attributed to gear entanglements. Surely, the reported shift in right whale migrations to more northerly summer feeding grounds can only be attributed to the climate-related shift in their planktonic foods.

The latest report of the International Panel on Climate Change, released in August, now states that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” Within our lifetime, oceanographers have tracked dramatic shifts in the confluence of warm and cold currents off the Gulf of Maine that are fundamentally altering coastal ecology and productivity. Apart from the warming effects, these changes have starved the gulf of nutrients associated with the cold northern waters that fertilize its world-class biological productivity. The adverse effects don’t stop with the North Atlantic right whale. Sharp declines have been reported in everything from seabirds to hake to herring stocks.

This is not to deny entanglements happen. To be sure, it has been estimated that some 80 percent of North Atlantic right whales bear evidence of prior entanglement. Harvesters, however, cite NOAA statistics that there has not been a documented entanglement of a right whale in Maine lobster gear since 2004 to support their case that current efforts to protect whales are working. Indeed, attribution of whale deaths remain unclear. Maine Department of Marine Resources identified considerable gaps in evidence that would directly link right whale mortality to Maine’s lobster fishery since 2009 when whale-safe measures, such as breakaway links and sinking lines, were widely implemented. The U.S. trap-pot and gillnet fishery is tasked with the entire burden of the 98 percent reduction plan over 10 years, with no accounting for measures taken by Canadian counterparts or the shipping industry now or in the future. “To say this reduction will be devastating to the viability of Maine’s fixed gear fisheries is an understatement,” DMR states. NOAA’s new ruling further mandates a 950-square-mile seasonal closure off Maine, where only expensive and still unproven “ropeless” fishing will be allowed with an experimental fishing permit. While the technology is in development, ropeless gear has a long way to go to be feasible, affordable and enforceable in practical application. To do our part as a society, yes, we need to cut back on carbon emissions to mitigate climate change, but this will not help the northern right whale in the near term. We support public investment that enables U.S.-Canada collaboration in monitoring, data collection and technology development to understand whale movements and sources of mortality, as well as the social and economic costs of avoiding them. Specifically, cross-border collaboration should monitor gear entanglements, ship strikes and whale movements through tagging, acoustic and aerial surveillance. Creative minds need to confront the technical challenge of outfitting all 360-plus living northern right whales with acoustic or satellite tags that would enable real-time, spatially explicit warning to regulate both fishing and shipping when whales are in the area.

These efforts should be placed in the context of continuing research on how changes in our shared northwest Atlantic marine ecosystem are contributing to shifts in whale movements and survival. Existing international programs like the Canada-U.S. Transboundary Resources Steering Committee may offer just one example of a useful mechanism to coordinate a joint response at the federal level.

Indeed, it is incumbent on us all, public and private, to take responsibility for saving both the right whale and the lobster fishery — both national treasures. At the end of the day, we call for more humility in recognizing that the plight of the right whale is complicated, but we have the creativity, tools and resources to disentangle this problem. “We’re in this together” is a frequent refrain of late in battling the COVID-19 pandemic. We don’t pretend to speak for all scientists, but we think the same philosophy should apply to other serious threats to our environment and to endangered species, such as the northern right whale.

Rick Wahle (left) is a research Professor at U Maine and head of the Lobster Institute. Bob Steneck (right) is a marine Ecologist and a Professor at U Maine.


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