French President Macron may not have realized it, but he got into another fishing war earlier this month when he and 200 other guests were treated to Maine lobster at the White House. poached in butter accented with American Osetra caviar and topped with crispy celery.
The problem was lobsters, currently subject to a court ruling to prevent Maine lobsters from trapping shellfish in baited traps marked with lines that can be fatally tangled while feeding North Atlantic right whales. There are only 340 such whales left, with only around 100 breeding females, making the species one of the most endangered on the planet.
The Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative celebrated the choice, saying it was “proud” that guests “enjoyed the delicious taste of Maine lobster.” International advocacy group Oceana countered that “the lobster on their menu cannot be considered sustainable by any definition”.
The dispute between Maine’s $1 billion lobster industry, which employs more than 10,000 lobsters, the White House and new protections issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has deep roots.
The right whale population plummeted by 500 a decade ago, while Maine’s lobster industry boomed. The industry disputes that its vertical lines attached to buoys are to blame. Some refer to collisions with ships, others to gillnets.
The right whale was one of the first whale species to gain protections in the 1930s, but US wildlife authorities are now warning it could be extinct in 40 years. More recently, in September, a right whale named Snow Cone was spotted entangled in new fishing gear and in “very poor health”.
“There are very few whales and a lot of gear in the water,” says Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and author of We are all whalers. “We can’t avoid entanglements that are deadly or harmful to their health. For whales to reproduce and recover in numbers, they must be fit, large and healthy.
The problem escalates. Last month, a U.S. federal judge ordered a two-year extension before new anti-tangle regulations take effect. Meanwhile, the Whole Foods chain pulled lobster from its stores after California-based Seafood Watch added US and Canadian lobster fisheries to its “red list”.
This week, the suspension of certification granted by the Marine Stewardship Council to the Maine lobster industry takes effect. The council called the entanglement of whales a “serious and tragic situation”.
“They are really sensitive, much more than other whales,” says Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan“and it’s pretty sad and kinda crazy that this is happening off the richest democracy on the planet.”
But as the ocean warms, they move north from their typical winter feeding ground off Cape Cod in search of copepods (a small type of zooplankton), where they encounter intensive industry. Maine lobster and come across lines and lobster buoys, which they don’t have I don’t see.
“They’re amazingly flexible animals, and they twist and turn and their flukes get tangled,” Hoare says. “The lobster lines can then tighten around their caudal peduncle – the tail stock – causing it to necrosis.” It is, he adds, “a horrible slow death…”
According to Moore, the problem comes down to consumerism. At one time, whales were hunted for oil and baleen; now they are harmed by our demand for goods. “It’s all driven by climate change and the direct impact of what we’re doing to extract the resources and the things we want.”
But no one, as the White House has attested, overlooks the power of this demand as an economic driver and political force. “It’s a glorious shift that comes down to what we really care about,” Moore says. “In a way, the right whale is a totem for all the different elements of biodiversity collapse that we see.”
Inside is the wonder of the whale itself, often called the urban whale because it lives so close to shore. “They are huge, very strange animals,” says Hoare, known among other things for “very long foreplay sessions of three or four hours.”
Males possess the largest testicles of any animal on the planet, and mating often involves multiple males and a single female – a “socially active group” in scientific terms. “We see them rolling around in shallow water in a very sensual way, caressing each other with their fins. There are a lot of animals involved, and it’s clearly erotic. They seem so caught up in the moment.”
For the right whale, meddling in human affairs has never been good. But there may be a silver lining if the lobster industry adopts “ropeless” lobster traps that can be triggered by acoustic signals to surface.
Until that happens, the right whale’s situation looks grim. “You can’t protect the whale and have lobster,” Hoare says. “It’s as simple as that and it scares the lobster industry. They can see it coming.
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