Biden, listen to the science — don’t serve extinction to our allies
Just days after Whole Foods pledged to stop selling Maine lobster because of the fishery’s threat to the endangered North Atlantic right whale, President Biden served French President Emmanuel Macron a lobster dinner.
Using the first state dinner of Biden’s presidency to spotlight the U.S. neglect of a majestic marine mammal facing extinction sends an odd message to our French allies and observers around the world.
It’s possible Biden is confused about the threats to right whales. Misinformation has certainly been a key feature of the Maine lobster industry’s recent campaign against regulations aimed at saving the whales. But repeating misleading talking points won’t lead us to a meaningful resolution.
The president needs to understand that only about 340 endangered North Atlantic right whales still remain. The National Marine Fisheries Service has never done enough to protect these whales — which violates both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
In July, a federal court ruled in favor of the Center for Biological Diversity (my organization), Conservation Law Foundation and Defenders of Wildlife in a case challenging the Fisheries Service’s failure to protect right whales from deadly entanglements in lobster gear. The Fisheries Service is now required to enact a new rule that further reduces entanglement risks.
In fighting this process, the lobster industry has repeatedly claimed that there’s no evidence its gear harms whales.
It’s true that most whale entanglements have no witnesses. But scientists have plenty of evidence that they occur and high confidence that Maine lobster gear is a serious threat.
Many whales have injuries from entanglements but no longer bear the gear itself. In the rare instances where a whale is found still carrying gear, the gear is unlikely to be marked and cannot be traced to a fishery, thanks to the industry’s efforts to avoid mandatory marking. Better marking is now required, and in one instance of entanglement in 2022, a humpback whale was found near Boston with gear traced to Maine lobstering.
Whales can also become so entangled that they’re unable to get free. In deeper waters, fishermen use a minimum of 45 traps per trawl, making the gear too heavy for a whale to shake off. The animal could die stuck in place and sink out of sight to the ocean floor. Others can drag gear for months or even years only to eventually succumb to starvation or exhaustion.
In a 2021 paper, scientists estimated that between 2010 and 2017, they were only able to detect 29 percent of right whale deaths. Of the remaining 71 percent, entanglements were likely responsible for the vast majority. Scientists also estimate that, shockingly, nearly 85 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once, and almost 60 percent have been entangled more than once.
As the industry notes, Maine lobster isn’t the only seafood harvested in right whale habitat, and Canadian snow crab gear farther north is a threat. But the Fisheries Service has found that the Northeast lobster fishery makes up 93 percent of the U.S. buoy lines in right whale habitat. It’s improbable that whales won’t encounter at least some of the deadly obstacle course of lines the lobster fishery creates.
Getting tangled in fishing gear doesn’t always kill. Scientists have determined that entangled females suffer from decreased birth rates. Other scientific papers have demonstrated that entanglements have stunted right whale growth, decreasing energy for reproduction and making right whales less resilient to future entanglements.
As the right whale population declines, fewer calves are being born. Without at least 50 new calves every year, the species cannot recover, according to the Fisheries Service — and calving rates are significantly below that. According to recent numbers from whale experts, the right whale population is still declining.
Quantifying any population of wild animals is difficult, and always relies to some extent on scientific modelling. Studying marine mammals like the right whale that inhabit a vast ocean and have a small population presents immense challenges. We’ll never be able to definitively say how many right whales die each year from which causes. That’s not how science works.
Scientists and whale advocates are committed to working with the lobster industry to protect both whales and the livelihoods of Maine residents. But we cannot make progress by ignoring decades of sound evidence — or by spotlighting our indifference to foreign dignitaries. The right whale’s dire status requires strong, immediate action.
Kristen Monsell is legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Oceans program.