The North Atlantic right whale was once seen as an inexhaustible natural resource. It was hunted for its oil and enriched New England. That ended one-hundred years ago, but the right whale’s numbers have never been the same. Now, the whales that are left are in direct conflict with the harvesting of another rich natural resource: lobsters.
About the time when the first crocuses start to bloom, the North Atlantic right whale comes back in numbers to feed in Cape Cod Bay, and researchers go out on the water to count them.
When commercial whaling ended in the 1930s, there were only about 100 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. Now that people weren’t killing them on purpose, their numbers slowly climbed, topping out at about 550 in the year 2010. Then something happened. Their numbers started to drop. But why? Their relatives, the Southern right whales, are doing fine.
Michael Moore is a biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who has been examining dead whales for 30 years to figure out what happened to them. “The two pieces that make the difference between the Southern right whale’s success and the Northern Atlantic right whale’s struggle has been vessel collisions and entanglement in fixed fishing gear," Moore said.
In the southern oceans there are fewer ships and less fishing gear, and that has allowed Southern right whales to grow to a population of 15,000, Moore said. There are now fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales here off the coast of New England.
Explaining that researchers have mapped out where entanglements have happened, Moore pointed to a chart on his computer and ticked off lobster trap after lobster trap.
It’s a tiny sample size, he said. Most entanglements are never traced back to the source. But we know that since 2009, almost 60 percent of right whale deaths have been caused by fishing gear entanglements. In many cases in New England, that means lobster trap lines.
Mark Baumgartner is the head of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He thinks that the situation that right whales find themselves in is extremely precarious.
“There are only 100 breeding females left in this population. And so we are kind of on a countdown now to the extinction of the species,” Baumgartner said. “And as scientists we've sort of calculated out that at the rates that we're killing them now, they have about 20 years.”
In January, three conservation and animal protection groups filed a lawsuit to force the federal government to change lobster fishing rules to protect whales. It will likely take at least two years to get an answer from the courts. In the meantime, Baumgartner is urging the feds to allow people like him to test new fishing technologies, including weaker ropes, and an idea called “ropeless fishing.” Many fishermen are skeptical, but he says it might be their best chance to keep fishing in the long run.
Baumgartner explained that the government only has so many options on the table: reduced-breaking-strength rope, ropeless fishing, and closures. If the first two aren't feasible, all that's left is closures.
“Really, we never finished whaling. We’re still whaling today,” Michael Moore pointed out. But he added, “It’s really important not to say that the fishing industry or the shipping industry is whaling." There's the bigger picture. "You and I are whaling because our consumptive habits generate the economic driver for the stakeholders that go after these animals. It’s totally unintentional, but nonetheless.”
If the federal government is forced to close lobster fishing on the East Coast to save the whales, it would likely devastate fishing communities. Scientists say the goal is to keep fishermen fishing and keep the whales from going extinct.
This is the first story in our series on the challenges facing North Atlantic right whales, and the people working to save them. In the coming weeks, we’ll take a closer look at what might be causing the whale’s low birth rates, the lobstermen’s dilemma, and new ways of disentangling whales.