Tenth Dead Right Whale Drives Home Point of Letter from Scientists

Sep 19, 2019

The dead North Atlantic right whale found off the coast of New York has been identified as Snake Eyes, seen here on July 16, 2019.
Credit Northeast Fisheries Science Center

More than a dozen scientists have signed a letter defending the science behind proposed measures to protect North Atlantic right whales. There are only about 400 of the critically endangered whales remaining, and their numbers are falling.

Entanglement in fishing gear is the leading cause of death and earlier this year, a broad group of stakeholders agreed to new commitments to reduce the amount of rope in coastal waters. That agreement now faces pushback from some lobstermen, and scientists are defending it.

WCAI’s Heather Goldstone spoke with Scott Landry, director of the Marine Animal Entanglement Response at the Center for Coastal Studies. Below is a lightly edited transcript of their full conversation.

HG: Scott, before we talk about the letter released today, there's some sad news to address. A North Atlantic right whale was found dead off the coast of New York earlier this week. And there is now new information about who that whale was and how it died. What's the latest?

SL: The documentation that we've gathered so far at the beach down off Long Island allowed the New England Aquarium to confirm that the whale is Snake Eyes. That's a 40 year old animal, at minimum, that was last seen badly entangled and alive up in Canadian waters on August 6th. So, this is the first - and will be the last - sighting of that whale since that entanglement this summer.

HG: That's the ninth* confirmed death this year, which seems to perfectly illustrate the problem at hand. But earlier this year - back in April - there seemed to be a glimmer of hope when this large group, the Take Reduction Team, with representatives from fishermen, environmentalists - the full spectrum - actually agreed to some proposed measures to try to better protect right whales. What were some of those major measures?

SL: I would say the main part of that was a reduction of end lines. End lines are the buoy lines, or the portion of the gear that connects whatever's on the seafloor to a buoy on the surface that marks the gear. And the idea was to reduce end lines by fifty percent, pretty much coast-wide within the range of right whales in this country. And that was a really a hard-fought compromise between all parties. We all fought and compromised in all directions, but we all agreed in good faith to go for that goal of reduction by fifty percent. And lobstermen, as we said, were among those represented in that negotiation process.

HG: There were five representatives of the Maine Lobstermen's Association that voted for those proposed measures. And it was really hailed for the fact that there was such a consensus about what seemed like pretty dramatic measures to protect right whales. But, in recent days, we've seen the Maine Lobstermen's Association withdraw their support for those measures, in part citing flawed data and - they're saying - not enough information to actually pin this problem on Maine lobstermen. You have now, along with more than a dozen scientists, responded with an open letter defending that science. So, what do we and don't we know about exactly what gear right whales get entangled in?

SL: I will say, first of all ,that both the fishing industry and the scientists agree that a lot is not known about the entanglement problem and that's not for lack of trying. This is a really complex subject that's really hard to gather data on. And whales themselves are also extremely difficult to study, especially across their entire range. But what we realized is (this is going back to research that's now ten to fifteen years old) that the greatest risk the whales face is from rope. It doesn't matter what that rope comes from, whether it's used for a pot fishery or a gill net fishery or aquaculture. Whales can get entangled in any of that. And what we have definitely seen is that they often get entangled in the rope that is most common in their environment, and that includes lobster gear. So, for example, in 2005 we published a paper on all of the gear that we had removed from humpback and right whales up to that date and 40 percent of that gear was lobster gear for right whales. So, it's definitely the single largest amount of fishery that we've pulled off of right whales over the years. Of course, right whales got entangled in just about everything, but to state that lobster is not a significant portion of that would not be correct.

HG: The effort to reduce lines by 50 percent by half - there are a couple of ways to get there. One of those is to just put fewer traps out there, which obviously would significantly impact the industry. The other is efforts to develop technologies that would allow the lobster fishery to continue but without the use of those ropes, so-called ropeless fishing. And then there are those who say “Well, but we have people like you, Scott Landry, out there disentangling the whales that actually do get caught in this rope.” Why is disentangling not enough of a solution?

SL: Well, the first example to look at is the one we discussed earlier: the right whale, Snake Eyes, who's dead on a beach in Long Island right now. Now, we don't know at the moment the cause of death for this whale, and that will take time for stranding responders to work out. But what we do know is that he was last seen badly entangled up in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in sea conditions where no one could actually get to him. He was seen by a plane. No boat could have worked with him, and certainly no one could have disentangled him at that time. And despite a huge survey effort over the subsequent weeks, that whale was never seen again. Obviously, it broke free from its entanglement. It did make it down probably to U.S. waters. Now again I don't want to imply that this whale has died of its entanglement. Maybe something happened, maybe it shed the gear on its own and something else happened. But it highlights the fact that we can't get to all untangled whales simply because we can't find them. The ocean is simply too big and these whales’ range is huge.

HG: And what would be - if there is such a thing - an acceptable number of whales that could get entangled, that might even die from their entanglements, each year and not drive the right whales to extinction?

SL: Right now, the legal accepted limit is below one whale per year throughout its entire range, and we've been consistently above that level for years now. And that's driving, in part, this extinction. And so, there is no real acceptable level. Anything above say half a right whale per year, on average, is just simply too much. And so we recognized at the take Reduction Team meeting last spring that, to be fair, all the fishing industries involved in this process would try to make the reductions, coast-wide. Realize that here in the state of Massachusetts fishermen have done quite a bit for this effort. For example, closing Cape Cod Bay - a pretty good investment with a lot of fishermen in it - during the right whale season. And that same kind of sacrifice hasn't been coast-wide, from Florida all the way up to Maine. And so we wanted to see – and all of us agreed to this - that we all took the brunt of that by 50 percent, not just some places and not others.

*Canadian officials have since confirmed that one of the dead whales they had counted during the summer was, in fact, two different individuals. This brings the number of North Atlantic right whale deaths this year to ten – more than 2 percent of the population.