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Right Whale, Wrong Time

Lantern sculptures by Kristian Brevik, titled: “Entangled: Ghost Whales.” Available for order at http://www.kristianbrevik.com. Photo: Kristian Brevik.

On the umpteenth day aboard the Dredge Newport, during the 11th hour of a 12-hour shift, 1,000 yards ahead in the center of the Brunswick shipping channel, I spied the unmistakable V-shaped blow. “Whoa. Idle the engines,” I said to the mate. For the next 15 minutes, we watched two North Atlantic right whales, mother and calf, crisscross the channel, seemingly oblivious to our 265 ft dredge boat. The first-time mother, known as whale #3232, was escorting her vulnerable calf through precarious waters on her way to even more dangerous seas farther north. She has a name now – “Lobster” – though she doesn’t know it. But that particular name carries a flavor of cruel irony.

Lobster, a female North Atlantic right whale photographed in 2005 by NOAA. Notice the lobster-shaped callosity—a patch of calcified skin that appears white from colonies of whale lice—that helps researchers easily identify individual whales. Photo: New England Aquarium.

To understand the current state of the North Atlantic right whale, we need to take a brief dive into our own past. Numerous and more talented writers have chronicled this fascinating, yet gruesome history. In some ways, the United States was built on the backs of whales—these giants literally powered our fledgling nation. Boiled whales delivered everything from street lights to industrial lubricants. This pre-Rockefeller oil rush brought excessive wealth, legendary literature, and whales to the brink of extinction. There were millions of victims, but the right whale was an early target. These coastal denizens (today nicknamed “urban whales”) were easy to kill and floated when dead, making them the “right” whales to hunt. They never recovered.

Commercial whaling ended decades ago. Fishing entanglement and ship strikes are the most persistent threats to the survival of this species, and the marine world is absolutely saturated with lobster lines and big boats. Together, the U.S. and Canadian lobster and snow crab fisheries deploy over 1 million vertical lines within right whale habitat. Of the remaining North Atlantic right whales, 83% show signs of at least one entanglement. Most whales swim through a seemingly impenetrable gauntlet during the foraging season, while pregnant females must escape entanglement on their way to calving grounds off the coast of Georgia and Florida.

I recently traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, for the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, a meeting of the world’s urban whale experts. I hoped to learn about the efforts to recover right whale populations and reduce human-caused mortality. I expected to be enlightened and inspired. I left with a visceral feeling of despair.

I wish I was writing an optimistic piece about innovative fishing gear designed to break when 40-ton whales become entangled. Or about ropeless lobster traps and areas closed to fishing to protect whales. But the enormity of the situation dwarfs those stories of our 11th-hour frenzy.

Of the ~450 right whales that swam into 2017, at least 17 didn’t make it out alive—and those are the deaths of which we know. We’ve lost at least three whales in 2018. By definition, the rate at which right whales are dying is unsustainable. Fishing gear lethally entangled at least seven of those whales; the cause of death for eight others could not be determined. Worse, not a single right whale calf was born in 2018. (Though, incredibly, three calves have been born since the start of 2019.) The stress of entanglement could (help) explain this bout of infertility. Entanglement slows whales down by a factor of 1.5 on average, and as much as 3-fold in some cases. It’d be like an expectant woman dragging a parachute into a headwind as she walks miles to the maternity ward—the straps of the chute causing festering wounds around her shoulders, eventually carving gullies into her bones.

A 12 year-old female North Atlantic right whale entangled in 2004. This entanglement may look relatively harmless, but over 51 feet of line passed through her mouth, across her blowhole, and wrapped around her left flipper, hindering her ability to swim and feed. Photo: Cassoff et al. 2011. (https://darchive.mblwhoilibrary.org/handle/1912/4879)

After six agonizing months, the female whale finally succumbed to her injuries. From Cassoff et al. (2011): The “…sink and float lines, extending from the mouth to the left flipper insertion, carved a 6 cm wide, 42 cm long furrow across the blowhole, as well as a 60 cm wide notch in the left humerus, resulting in severe hemorrhage and death.” Photo: Cassoff et al. 2011.

A closeup of the mutilated baleen. North Atlantic right whales use their baleen to filter feed. Without the ability to feed, this female whale became emaciated over the course of her 6-month entanglement. Photo: Cassoff et al. 2011.

I’ve worked in an animal hospital. I’ve seen what gruesome pain we inflict on other species. Intentional or not, our car tires, boat propellers, and fishing lines can smash tortoise armor, chop through manatee muscle, and strangle sea turtle flippers, but none of this prepared me for the images of right whales entangled in lobster and crab lines. Before their slow death, these fellow mammals—who nurse their young, socialize, and sing individual songs—experience some of the most horrific injuries imaginable: ripped gums and baleen, flesh torn from their tails, and circulation cut off at the shoulder. Most of us just stand by, butter in hand.

Midway through the consortium, we broke into a discussion about creating a “villain” in all this. We’d risk alienating the fishermen who we desperately need as partners. In the height of industrial whaling, the villain was obvious. Even in the days of disappearing birds and Silent Spring, we could point to a culprit. The truth is, now—and perhaps then—we need only look in the mirror.

As I flew home from the right whale conference, I couldn’t help but repeat the lyrics from a song by New Bedford schoolchildren. A couple hundred urban leviathans are “right whales living in the wrong time.” As of 2017, Lobster was still alive. As far as we know, she’s dodged the metaphorical minefield, and, after four years of recovery, she is about due for her second calf. The odds are against her.

2 Comments on “Right Whale, Wrong Time

  1. Very interesting personal story and summary of the predicament facing us. FYI: the school group mentioned at the end is a group of students from Castine, Maine under the director of a teacher named Bill McWeeney. Ropeless (nonvertical line) technology holds much promise but all stakeholders should be advocating for more funding.

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