Want to save the whales?  Reconsider lobster, some say.

Want to save the whales? Reconsider lobster, some say.

Too many endangered whales are drowning in fishing rope in the North Atlantic. But Maine Lobsters say there’s little evidence their equipment is to blame.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)


Want to save the whales? Don’t order the lobster.

It’s the message from a growing chorus of environmentalists that’s sparking a tense debate in New England cities, congress halls and courtrooms across the country.

With only about 340 right whales left in the North Atlantic, too many massive marine mammals biologists say are getting tangled in fishing gear along the East Coast for critically endangered species to survive.

But lobsters and their lawmakers in Washington are outraged that eating the renowned shellfish is bad for whales. Maine’s thousands of licensed lobster fishermen, they say, are doing everything required by law to reduce the risk of trapping right whales.

“We have a sustainable resource,” said Steve Train, a lobster fisherman based in Long Island, Maine. “People should be able to feel good about eating Maine lobster.”

Still, there’s more pressure than ever on Americans to give up the fancy shellfish. Whole Foods is phasing out Maine lobster. Even President Biden has come under fire for serving butter-poached lobster at the state dinner he hosted on Thursday for French President Emmanuel Macron. What diners decide to do could help determine the fate of an iconic fishing industry – and an endangered whale.

Few creatures define the cuisine of a region like lobster defines that of New England.

Its shores were once teeming with so many fish that Native Americans crushed the shellfish for fertilizer. Long before it became a restaurant delicacy, lobster may have been on the first Thanksgiving menu.

These whales are on the edge of the abyss. Now comes climate change and wind power.

But the North Atlantic right whale is — or was — a New England icon, too. Whalers sailing from Nantucket and other ports hunted them by the thousands, harvesting carcasses to make oil to light lamps and lubricate machinery.

Slow-swimming and staying close to shore, the species may have gotten its name from being the “right” one to spear.

While the lobsters persisted, the right whale population plummeted. The remaining few hundred animals are still vulnerable long after the whalers have left.

Boat strikes and rising temperatures which may alter the abundance of krill they eat now threaten them. But it is entanglements in fishing gear that are the leading cause of death, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with protecting right whales.

A leading guide to sustainable seafood, the Marine Stewardship Council, is withdrawing its seal of approval from Gulf of Maine lobsters this month over fears that whales will die in entanglements.

The loss of the nonprofit’s recognizable blue label comes just as a separate sustainability guide, Seafood Watch, recommended earlier this year against buying lobster caught in US or Canadian waters, giving shellfish and shellfish a “red” rating.

“We’re raising the flag that there’s an environmental problem,” said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, vice president of global ocean initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which runs Seafood Watch. “There is a species of whale on the brink of extinction.”

The suspensions sparked a flurry of letters and laws from Maine’s congressional delegation defending the famous fishery. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the state insist there is no evidence that lobster is pushing right whales toward extinction.

“In a court of law for a criminal case, it’s beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucus with Democrats. “In a civil case, it’s a preponderance of the evidence. In this case, it is not proof. It’s guesswork. And that’s what really bothers me.

Maine lobsters say they are already doing their part by including weak links in lines to make it easier for whales to break free and marking gear with purple to identify traps.

No right whales, they add, are documented as dying entwined in Maine gear, placing much of the blame for recent fatalities in ship strikes in Canada. The last known whale to become entangled in a Maine lobster rope was in 2004.

“We might as well save kangaroos,” said Train, who like many in the industry comes from a long line of lobsters that includes his brother, father and grandfather.

Already grappling with low lobster prices and high fuel costs, lobster fishers are feeling the pinch of lobster’s loss of sustainable status.

Upmarket supermarket Whole Foods, an Amazon subsidiary, is suspending purchases of Gulf of Maine lobster until either seafood guide upgrades the crustacean’s classification. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Meal kit providers Blue Apron and HelloFresh have also removed lobster from their menus, although the two companies say they decided to do so ahead of Seafood Watch’s rating.

“It’s 5,000 small businesses employing one, two, or three people for a boat,” Train said. “It’s not an industry as you know it.”

For fifth-generation lobster fisherman Virginia Olsen, if the airlifted lobster from Maine was good enough for Biden’s first state dinner, it should also be good enough for the detractors.

“He’s using our product and that tells me he knows it’s a sustainable product,” said Olsen, policy director for the Maine Lobstering Union.

“We all catch whales”

But a coalition of right whale scientists called those claims “inaccurate”.

Rope often slips off carcasses, they note, making it difficult to determine where a whale has become entangled. Sometimes the only evidence of entanglement is a series of deep scars on whales washing up on shore.

And the male whale found entangled in 2004 remained trapped for years. The remaining population is so small that many right whales are given names. This one, nicknamed “Kingfisher”, has not been seen for seven years and is presumed dead.

These whales are so decimated that only one birth has been hailed by scientists

“We all catch whales one way or another,” said Michael Moore, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist who performs necropsies on beached whale carcasses. “It comes down to, do we care about lobster on the table or keeping the whales off the beach?”

But fewer whales could migrate to the Gulf of Maine as their prey moves through the warming ocean, the lobsters note. King, the senator from Maine, noted that Seafood Watch’s report on lobster in US waters did not include a map of the changing distribution of whales.

“It’s intellectual dishonesty,” King said.

“I don’t want to see the right whale go extinct,” he added, “but I want to be sure that what we’re doing to protect them will actually do so without serious collateral damage.”

In response to the “red” rating, the Maine delegation introduced a bill in October, cutting federal funding to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Since it opened 38 years ago, it has received less than $20 million in federal funds, some of which is earmarked for the rescue of stranded sea otters.

The California Aquarium said it just wanted to help consumers make informed choices. “We are not calling for a boycott,” spokesman Kevin Connor said. “It’s a matter of awareness.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service updated requirements last year to reduce the number of buoy lines in the water and restrict fishing during certain parts of the year.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans

But in November, a district court ordered the agency to draft a tougher rule by 2024 following a lawsuit from environmentalists claiming the government was failing to meet its obligations under the Environmental Protection Act. Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species Act to defend whales from lobster.

Kristen Monsell, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which helped bring the lawsuit, hopes the agency will mandate the use of traps with no ropes at all. So-called “ropeless” gear can be brought up from the sea floor with an inflatable but is more expensive than traditional lobster fishing gear.

“We recognize that change is difficult, but that doesn’t mean change shouldn’t happen,” she said. “Here we need massive changes in the way the fishery works in order to save the species.”

These whales will be gone in 25 years, scientists say – unless we act now to save them

As wildlife managers work on new regulations, right whales continue to be ensnared.

A female whale named “Snow Cone” is no stranger to fishing gear. The 27-year-old has been scolded at least four times.

Last year, she battled exhaustion from dragging the rope from her final tangle to swim from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada to whelping grounds off Georgia to give birth. The mother and calf migrated north to Cape Cod Bay off Massachusetts.

But in September of this year, his situation was grim. Her skin was pale and gray. His jaw infested with whale lice. His body entangled in new fishing gear. And her untraceable calf.

“She wasn’t really swimming,” said Katherine McKenna, a research assistant at the New England Aquarium, who spotted Snow Cone that month from a research plane flying south of Nantucket. “You could tell she was in very poor health.”

She has not been seen since.

#save #whales #Reconsider #lobster

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