The American Lobster, Americanus homarus, can be found from Cape Hatteras, NC to Newfoundland but is most abundant in the Gulf of Maine, from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. It is in this area where it is most heavily targeted by commercial fisheries. And no wonder, according to a recent New York Times article, the retail price has doubled since last spring, now about $15 for a one-pound lobster.
For the millions of tourists that visit New England each year, the sweet taste of a New England lobster is worth the price. However, few of those shelling out their hard earned dollars to crack into the shell of this delicacy realize the conflict between lobsters and whales.
The colorful buoys that dot the surface of the waters up and down the coast of the Gulf of Maine, marking the locations of the traps beneath are the snapshots we see on a postcard; the muse for local artists; or an iconic symbol of New England. Yet it is what we don’t see beneath the surface that is the source of conflict between managers, conservationists and fishermen, and, sometimes, the source of death to endangered whales.
Fishermen are not trying to catch whales, it happens incidentally. The lines that connect the traps below the surface can float as much as 25-30 feet above the sea bed. The line to which the colorful buoy is attached can run hundreds of feet down to the bottom.
It is these lines in which whales will sometimes get ensnared. No one knows why whales don’t seem able to detect the lines- maybe there are just too many in one area, or maybe whales are just too busy feeding and become oblivious. But what is known is that when whales and line interact, it can be lethal to the whale. As the whale becomes entangled it appears to roll further into the gear, causing a tight wrap. While some whales do shed the gear on their own, others carry it with them for years. The line can become imbedded in the skin or worse, cut through bone. This can result in a painful and slow death as they may be unable to feed or swim properly, or their wounds become hopelessly infected.
It is not only an animal welfare issue; it is more than that. The fate, literally, of a species is at stake. The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale is on the brink of extinction with fewer than 400 animals remaining. Much of its summer feeding habitat overlaps with that of the American lobster. While entanglement in fishing gear is not the only threat (vessel strikes are a considerable source of mortality), it is partly responsible for the failure of right whales to recover since it was first protected in 1935.
In 2002, a right whale died in legally fished gear, triggering a mandate for the federal government to act. In 2005, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) finally issued a proposed rule to require sinking line i.e. line that rests on or very close to the sea bottom between the traps of fixed fishing gear, reducing the amount of line floating in the water, as a result reducing the risk of entanglement to whales. However, as a result of political pressure, NMFS has yet to release the plan- some five years after the death that was the impetus for the plan. Since 2002 there have been at least 21 reports of entangled right whales and scar analyses indicates as many as 45-60 right whales become entangled each year.
Since 2002, at least 18 dead right whales have been reported with more than 70% of those deaths attributed to entanglement or vessel strike. NMFS has stated that the death of a single right whale each year as a result of entanglement in fishing gear (or any other human cause) significantly jeopardizes the future of the species. If things do not change, the North Atlantic right whale will be another species to join the list of those we have taken beyond the point of recoverability and extinguished forever. According to the World Conservation Union (IUCN), the total number of species declared officially Extinct is 784 and a further 65 are only found in captivity or cultivation. Last year marked the announcement of the extinction of the Chinese River Dolphin (Baiji) and the West African Black Rhino.
While NMFS has yet to require sinking line, on January 1st, 2007, the State of Massachusetts mandated that all fixed fishing gear in Massachusetts State waters must be equipped with sinking line. While this modification will not reduce the risk of entanglement from the buoy line, it is a major risk reduction in the trawl groundline. It may not be “whale safe”, but it is significantly “safer” and the Massachusetts fishermen deserve support from whale-loving consumers.
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