There are about 10,000 southern right whales in the wild. The number of North Atlantic right whales, meanwhile, has dropped to about 400.
This huge discrepancy isn’t due to genetic differences — it’s more a matter of longitude and latitude. North Atlantic right whales live in some of the most industrialized waters in the world. Over the past few decades, collisions from ships and trauma from fishing gear have killed and injured an extraordinary number of these majestic animals.
That is why a coalition of conservation organizations, marine scientists, and policymakers are now fighting to protect the species. But unless sensible industry-wide changes are made in the near future, the North Atlantic right whale could enter into a death spiral from which it might never recover.
Protecting the whale is about more than saving a beleaguered, isolated species — its recovery has implications for the future of marine life.
Overfishing, heavy marine traffic, pollution, climate change, and other factors have caused catastrophic harm to the ocean, turning once vibrant ecosystems into hollowed out wastelands, and threatening the long-term survival of species ranging from corals to whales.
But the decline of the North Atlantic right whale can be reversed.
“This is a human-caused problem,” Dr. Sarah Sharp, a veterinarian with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told Global Citizen. “It is within our power to make a change. This population does not have to go extinct. We have the capacity to change how this is happening. We need the willpower and funding to make that happen.”
Bringing about a safer environment for right whales will require a mass movement of people demanding legislative and industry-wide changes. And at the core of this movement is an animal different in nearly every way from a whale — the lobster.
North Atlantic right whales feed on zooplankton and other small creatures near the surface of the ocean. They eat around 3,000 pounds of food each day. Sometimes a cargo boat weighing more than 100,000 tons will come quietly slicing over the waves where whales are grazing and slam into one.
When this happens, the whale dies on impact or else sustains severe injuries — like a blow to the head or a deep laceration — that do not kill it right away, but that cause it immense pain for an extended period of time.
Whatever the initial trauma, the whale’s death has begun, according to Sharp.
“It’s hard to wrap your head around how grisly the manner of their death is,” Sharp said. “Some of them live for days or a week past the point of impact. These animals have mandibular fractures or lower jaw fractures, things that don’t prevent them from breathing, but that are extremely painful, with massive hemorrhaging throughout blubber internal cavities.”
But ship collisions are no longer the greatest threat to right whales.
In recent years, regulations have been adopted to limit the speed and frequency of cargo traffic in waters off the eastern coast of the United States, and boats have been forced to adopt protocols to avoid whales. While helpful, these regulations haven't fully eliminated injuries and deaths by collisions. As climate change alters water conditions, right whales are expanding their grazing ranges, and are being hit more frequently in areas outside of regulated zones.
Nowadays though, it’s gear from fishing vessels that most often puts whales' lives at risk. Recently, conservationists won a key legal battle against the the federal government to prevent gillnet fishing in the waters south of Nantucket, but dangers still remain as lobster fishing is widespread.
Lobster fishermen drop cages to the ocean floor that are attached by vertical lines to buoys at the surface. The traps are left in the water until fishermen return to the buoys and haul them out.
Right whales get entangled in the lines, which can cause lifelong disfigurement, injury, and even death. More than 85% of North Atlantic right whales have scars from fishing line entanglement.
“These animals can’t see very well underwater — they communicate and move through the water using echolocation,” C.T. Harry, IFAW’s lead right whale marine campaigner, told Global Citizen. “They often can’t see the line, they swim into it, and we think they panic and sometimes they pitch and roll and that causes the whale to get entangled via their flipper or tail.”
“When they start feeling the resistance of the traps, they can still get to the surface, but then they carry around the equivalent of a few Volkswagens for the rest of their lives,” he added.
The lines can get wrapped around a whale’s head, causing damage to their mouths and limiting their ability to get food.
“We had a live entangled right whale whose jaw was wired shut because the line was wrapped so many times around its jaw,” Sharp, who is part of a team that locates and disentangles whales stuck in fishing lines, said. “The ropes can cut into their head and blowhole, or their pectoral flippers.”
“These are really traumatic and horrific ways to die,” she added. “They can’t get enough food, their mouths are essentially shut. They die of an infection or malnutrition. They’re really sad and horrible cases.”
Even if a whale isn’t killed by an entanglement, it could prevent them from mating in the future, further reducing the species’ chance of survival, said Sharp.
IFAW is working with engineers, fishermen, and regulatory agencies to protect the whales by changing how lobsters are caught.
If they’re successful, fishing with vertical lines could become a dangerous relic of the past — a shift that would protect species far beyond North Atlantic right whales.
“Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the biggest issues facing marine life today,” Sharp said. “It affects seals to sea lions to dolphins to porpoises and the big whales.”
“And so the right whale is very representative,” she said.
Path to Sustainability
When suspended in the water, lobster traps become the marine equivalent of land mines to whales and other big animals.
Rather than advocating for bans on fishing in waters where right whales graze and migrate, IFAW is encouraging the adoption of a new system of lobster fishing that eliminates vertical lines.
“The vertical line is a global problem and right whales are particularly emblematic of the issue because if that threat is removed, their survivability will increase dramatically,” Harry said.
There are two types of alternative fishing gear currently being developed.
The first method features a trap with a rope coiled inside of it. Once the trap fills with lobsters, the rope can be activated to shoot to the surface where a boat can then retrieve it. This system would significantly reduce the amount of time that a rope is suspended in the water, and therefore minimize the risk to whales.
The second alternative being developed is a trap with an inflation device around it that can be activated to float to the surface once lobsters are caught.
Both methods are still in the early stages of testing and have to be fine-tuned to reliably withstand the conditions of the ocean. They also have to be reasonably priced for fishermen, who often operate on slim margins and can’t always afford to upgrade their technology.
Fishermen have been reluctant to try out the new methods, according to Harry.
That’s why IFAW is lobbying Congress to pass the Save Right Whales Act, which would provide $5 million annually over the next decade to fund research into the two alternatives. It would also help fishermen transition to the new fishing methods by subsidizing the adoption of the new technology.
Harry hopes that a certification system can also be created to label sustainable and ethically caught lobsters as “whale safe.” This would allow consumers to influence the lobster industry by choosing to buy “whale safe” products.
“We’re not advocating for people to boycott lobster,” he said. “We want people who eat lobster to demand that their lobster is caught without killing whales.”
There are more than 800,000 vertical lines for lobster traps in the waters off Maine alone. Each line has the potential to mangle or kill the next right whale.
“As long as they’re ropes in the ocean, right whales will get caught in them and die these horrible deaths,” Sharp said.
The team at IFAW wants to protect a species from going extinct, without harming the bottom line of fishermen. It’s a difficult line to tread, but these aims can complement each other.
“The right whale is the poster child for developing this new technology,” Harry said “They provide a road map for a global reduction of marine mammals harmed by bycatch and fishing gear.”
“This lets fishermen do their jobs, coastal communities flourish, and marine animals and the oceans thrive,” he added.