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LePage And The Whales

North Atlantic right whale viewed from above, with scientists in a boat on the surface of the water.
photo courtesy the NOAA Photo Library

It has been another bleak summer for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Eight animals were found dead in Canadian waters, while at least four more are likely entangled in hundreds of pounds of fishing gear that could eventually kill them.

This is not quite the debacle of two years ago, when 17 whales died in the worst “mortality event” in recent times. But it is a step back from last year, when emergency measures in Canada and the United States prevented any known deaths from entanglement or ship strike in the summer feeding grounds, and reduced the total known death toll to three. It also means the whale population, believed to number about 400, has been set back even after the seven recorded live births last winter (up from zero the year before).

Everyone agrees the gigantic seagoing mammals need a lot of help. The question of exactly what sort of help – and who should provide and pay for it – is roiling coastal fishing communities like a raging nor’easter.

Fisheries managers from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are developing new rules that are likely to fall heavily on the lobster industry in New England, especially in Maine, where fishing activity is greatest. The rules for Maine would cut in half the number of trap lines that can extend from the sea floor to the surface, where they are usually tethered to buoys that mark the line’s location. This restriction may not actually cut in half the number of traps. Fishermen are likely to double the traps per line, since well-equipped boats can handle this arrangement. But the change will likely still reduce Mainers’ take of the valuable crustacean, and the cost will burden the least-well-off operators.

The proposed rules have the state’s fishing community up in arms, not least because right whales have seldom been seen in the state’s waters in recent years. The whales have largely abandoned their former summer feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy, which begins in Maine but extends into the Canadian Maritimes. This is because the whales’ food source has moved. Right whales are baleen feeders that live off tiny crustaceans called copepods, which they skim along the surface of the sea. The reasons that the copepods have migrated are not known – many blame climate change – but the whales appear to be finding better summer feeding farther north, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Whales began appearing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in large numbers shortly before the 2017 carnage. Of the 17 whales lost that year, 12 died in those waters.

Maine’s lobstermen and lobsterwomen found an ally in former Gov. Paul LePage, who recently wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal decrying the proposed rules as misdirected and unnecessary. Echoing the complaints of many American fishermen, LePage blamed Canada’s fishing community for the whales’ ongoing struggles. He noted that the Canadian government has not mandated the weaker, easier-to-break trap lines meant to help whales escape entanglements. Such lines have been used in Maine, LePage observed, for more than a decade.

LePage probably overstates the case. Right whales are now scarce in the Bay of Fundy, but they are not entirely absent. The New England Aquarium has reported three sightings there in 2019. Nor have Canadian fishermen been spared from American fishermen’s constraints. Canadians in the industry expressed frustration last summer when a single whale sighting in the bay near Nova Scotia resulted in a temporary closure that cost more than a week’s fishing. The Canadian government continues to impose restrictions on fishing operations when whales are sighted to try to avoid collisions and entanglements. A zone within the Gulf of St. Lawrence has been closed to snow crab and lobster fisheries altogether since late April.

Moreover, the whales tend to concentrate in Cape Cod Bay in springtime before moving north with the warmer weather. Nobody knows their exact route, but there is a good chance at least some whales traverse the Maine fishing grounds on their way to Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore and the Gulf of St. Lawrence beyond. Commercial lobster operations occur along practically all of that route. Once in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the whales face additional hazards in the form of snow crab traps, which also use vertical trap lines.

The Americans are blaming Canadian crab fishermen for the whales’ problems. Canadians are blaming American lobstermen. Unfortunately, it makes little difference to the whales.

While LePage may have spun his op-ed to the advantage of his state’s fishing industry, his basic point – that the new rules represent a lot of expense and disruption to save, at best, a small number of whales – is probably valid. The problem with this argument is that there are so few of these whales left that the loss of even one is significant. If the one lost is a female of breeding age or younger, it goes from significant to potentially catastrophic.

Scientists can identify each whale by the pattern of white growths, called callosities, on the whale’s head. (The callosities are naturally gray; their white appearance is due to organisms that live on them without harming the whale.) Most known right whales are cataloged by number, and researchers have given many of them names.

One of this year’s casualties was Punctuation, a female who was at least 38 years old. First seen in 1981, she had given birth to eight calves since, and possibly more prior. She was probably still of breeding age when she died. Her first appearance in the Gulf of St. Lawrence came in 2016. This summer she died there, the victim of a ship strike that left a deep wound in her back.

At least three of the other deaths in Canada this summer were breeding-age females. The loss of even one young female can mean five to 10 fewer whales down the line, as Punctuation’s life story demonstrates. Assuming half of those future births would have been female, the long-term cost to the whale population multiplies exponentially.

On land, the human take of animals like deer can be regulated to restore populations by protecting females. Anyone who lives in the suburban Northeast can attest that these policies have been a raging success. But there is no way to give special protections to breeding female whales. We have to protect all whales, at whatever cost, if we are to preserve the species. LePage’s argument fails due to demographic math and the whales’ changeable migratory habits.

The effort to save the North Atlantic right whales has been ongoing since the 1930s. Today the whales and the measures required to save them extend from Cape Canaveral in central Florida to Cap Gaspé at the eastern tip of Quebec. Some people are called to give more than others on the whales’ behalf, it’s true. But these whales need all the help they can get.

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