The “Right” Whale To Kill

With less than 400 remaining, the North Atlantic Right Whales need our help! The North Atlantic Right whale has been critically extinct since the 1970s with a majority of the deaths being human caused. The main issue is that, while it is a human caused environmental crisis, almost no one knows anything about it, despite their critical habit being off the coast of New England. However the Oyster River community can support the Right Whale population by supporting political candidates that support marine conservation, learning about the issue and supporting the local fishing industry. 

They were, sadly enough, the “right” whale to kill due to their accessibility and buoyancy after death before whaling was outlawed in 1972 by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Since then, the Right Whale population has continued to deplete. The leading causes of death are results of human impact.

Now that I have thrown this information at you, it begs the question; so what? As a community, I think we’re pretty environmentally conscious and aware of local issues. However, there is a severe lack of knowledge and interest in the North Atlantic Right Whale issue, especially considering the two leading causes of death after climate change, are ship strikes and entanglement, both human caused. Ship strikes, in the moment, can sometimes be unavoidable. But by limiting boat traffic in Right Whale habitats and proceeding at low speeds they can be avoided. Not to mention the effect this would have on our ecosystems biodiversity. I believe people should pay attention to the North Atlantic Right Whale issue. 

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employee Mark Grant, “Everytime you remove a species from an ecosystem that ecosystem becomes less resilient overall. In its natural state every ecosystem is a form of chaos, it’s constantly changing, but almost everything in there is flexible to a certain point, and so it also means that if something, [for example] cod normally prey on isn’t available it preys on something else. If you start taking all those pieces away that ability to shift big picture starts to go away.” The extinction of the North Atlantic Right Whale would not just be a tragedy because of the loss of such a beautiful animal but would also make our ecosystem less resilient and able to adapt as a whole. So, while you may not think this issue impacts you, the loss their extinction would create would be one more loss to the already struggling ecosystem we live in. 

Right Whale deaths spiked a few years ago when the fishing community came into contact with whales in areas they weren’t typically in that time of year. This may not seem like a big deal, but even 10 deaths is significant in a population of less than 400 according to the “Recovery Plan for the North Atlantic Right Whale” by the NOAA. Grant says, “in recent years, particularly with Right Whales, one of the issues we have faced is that they have changed where they are geographically by season [when they are] chasing different food. Basically, we can tie that to climate change and water temperature change. . . suddenly they’re in a place that they weren’t” The problem this presents is that ships are unprepared to deal with them and lack the equipment needed at that time of year.  

The biggest issue locally is limiting vertical lines, which directly affects the lobster industry that is so prominent in our community. The vertical lines are long ropes that attach between a lobster trap at the ocean floor and a buoy at the surface. While this makes it easier for lobster fishermen to locate their traps, the issue is that the vertical lines entangle whales and injure them, or in more severe cases drown them. Grant explained, “it could interfere with feeding, it might slow them down, [or] it might just wear them down and make them susceptible to other disease. It can also make it harder for them to avoid a ship and get struck.” The fact of the matter is, this is the second leading cause of death, second only to climate change, and New England makes up a large part of their habitat. If we don;t start taking responsibility as a community, chances are the North Atlantic Right whale will be extinct within our lifetime. 

The recent regulations on the fishing industry seek to limit vertical lines and enforce break links and pingers in gill nets. One way to limit the number of vertical lines is to increase the number of traps in between the two buoys. The drawbacks to this method is that there is more weight and therefore more strain on the boats to pull the traps. NOAA is also working on new technology to create buoys that stay on the bottom until a certain frequency is released and  then they float to the top. This would eliminate the danger to marine mammals because the lines would only be there for the amount of time it takes to pull the traps. However, with all new things, there are drawbacks. 

While NOAA takes into account feedback from the fishing community, the new regulations are not getting much support. “There is a lot of controversy about that. Obviously fishing is money and particularly lobster fishing in the Gulf of Maine is really big business, so at a minimum, just changing that gear is expensive. Then beyond that if the gear is either less efficient at catching their target or if it’s more work to handle it on deck that’s an additional cost or problem for industry. So, there’s a lot of concern about the recent changes to deal with that,” says Grant. I think it’s important to point out that this is a complex issue that needs to take into account the industry as well as the Right Whale issue. By attending meetings held by NOAA to hear community feedback and supporting legislators or their campaigns that support the new regulations you can impact the trajectory of human interactions with the species as well as hear the voices of the local fishing industry. 

As for what the Oyster River community can do is to buy any American seafood because the US has laws and regulations to protect marine mammals. While this may seem counterintuitive because of the issues with the lobstering, however we know for a fact that the Maine lobstering industry has enforced restrictions to protect marine mammals that other fishing industries don’t necessarily have. You can also go on non-profit whale watches in the area through the Blue Ocean Society. Even simply educating yourself on local conservation issues can make a big impact. According to Oyster River student Lexie Frangos, “Before I took marine bio I didn’t know they existed. I’d heard the name before but I didn’t know what they were or their migrational patterns and how they’re being affected by humans.”The biggest thing our community can do is support candidates who pass legislation for environmental and marine conservation. By signing a petition on the Blue Ocean Society website, sending a donation, or simply sharing a link to a speech supporting bills like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, you can impact the future of the species.