By John Pappalardo
Let’s put it on the table:
What do we, an Alliance committed to keeping commercial fishing alive while at the same time committed to a vital ocean, think we should be doing to keep the North Atlantic Right Whale from going extinct?
The question is urgent. At least 17 right whales were killed last season in a population of around 435. There have been no reports of new calves born this season. Ship strikes and entanglements with fishing gear are key reasons why otherwise healthy animals die.
Humans are responsible for pushing these animals to the brink, at first on purpose (they were called “right” whales, after all, because they were the right whales to hunt) and then by accident (their habit of shallow feeding and slow travel makes them unintentional targets).
But before historic cosmic justice and multi-species compassion drive us toward policies that would in effect stop lobstermen and other fishermen from being able to work, we need to consider some other facts:
Our region’s lobstermen have bent over backwards to find ways to keep their lines from tangling up with whales. They now use what are called “weak links,” which break when stressed by pressure of less than 600 pounds. They also use what are called “sinking lines,” meaning lines that won’t float or snag animals if broken away. And more and more, they are “trawling,” meaning they link their lobster pots in a chain of as many as 25, buoyed only at both ends, reducing the number of lines in the water by that multiple.
These kinds of reforms come at a cost, and can be a pain. But they work. As one lobsterman with 40 years’ experience put it in a quiet, candid conversation, “We do not catch whales. It’s not that we don’t tell anybody when we catch whales. No. We… just… don’t… catch… whales.”
Those kinds of comments are what scientists call “anecdotal,” and can be seen as self serving. But before dismissing an honest assessment from an honest fisherman, consider this supporting proof:
Every reputable report about the 17 right whales killed last year says that the entangled gear on those whales came from Canadian crab pots. That industry uses much heavier line, fewer or no weak links, and did not respond right away with any other whale-safe efforts even when it became clear that right whales had moved into their territory.
So before we demonize our fishermen, let’s hold the Canadian government and industry to standards we have adopted. They are moving in this direction, which is good. Because without accountability and some sacrifice, a ban or boycott of Canadian imports would be a rational response.
There are other things we know. For example, most if not all of Cape Cod Bay is closed to fishing when right whales make their historic, annual return in the spring; shipping lane are also restricted with sophisticated monitoring to alert captains to where whales are congregating. That closure usually ends May 1 as the animals, feeding on spring blooms of plankton and krill, move off to follow the food. This year the closure was extended deeper into the month. Our lobstermen might not have been happy about that, but they understood why.
We have heard that perhaps technology could help us now; maybe each lobster trap could become ropeless, with an attached transponder to eliminate the need for a line and buoy to identify its location.
Great idea, in the abstract. But on the water? No way of seeing where pots are laid? No way to avoid setting on top of each other, or having draggers take out fields of pots? Broadcasting the hard-won location of every single trap with some electronic ping to every lobsterman on land or sea?
That won’t work, and even trying would likely bankrupt most of the people involved.
Well-intentioned people might have reached the point where the loss of one more right whale is not acceptable, and therefore any and every action to forestall that possibility and eliminate that risk must be taken.
A part of me can understand how someone gets there, and why. Another part of me mourns the tragedy that is extinction, of any animal.
But all of me knows that scapegoating fishermen who have done much to become part of the solution rather than the problem is no way to go.
I don’t know genetics well enough to know whether even if they were wrapped in swaddling, the tiny number of right whales has enough genetic diversity to survive and prosper. What I do know is that our fishing community will do everything we can to give them that chance — short of becoming extinct ourselves.
(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)