The Right (Whale) Stuff

Bestselling author Carl Safina goes fishing for a better lobster trap

Paul Greenberg

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Half of New England’s humpback whales bear scars from getting entangled in trap ropes (photo: Carl Safina)

Carl Safina is the bestselling author of 10 books and a world leader in ocean conservation. He contributed this guest post.

During the early days of whale hunting by sailing ship, one whale species was the “right one” to go after. They were particularly slow, and they floated when killed. This “right” whale was quickly hunted to near-extinction. They never recovered to their former tens-of-thousands and in recent decades their numbers have teetered on the brink. Around 330 North Atlantic right whales remain alive, up from about 250 in 1990 but down alarmingly from nearly 500 in 2011. What’s killing them? While the direct hunting that Herman Melville called, “so remorseless a havoc” has long been banned, humans remain the major cause of death. But now the killing is accidental. Ironically, that is harder to control. You can ban hunting. You can’t ban accidents. However, it’s not that simple — and it’s not that intractable.

Between 2010 and 2018, there were 107 cases of tangled North Atlantic right whales; nearly half died or suffered serious injury.

The majority of harm to whales of various species comes from them getting tangled in ropes attached to floating buoys that mark the location of strings of lobster and crab traps lying across the seafloor. Boats working New England waters collectively deploy millions of traps. Between 2010 and 2018, there were 107 cases of tangled North Atlantic right whales; nearly half died or suffered serious injury. About half the humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine have been entangled and each year about 12 percent of the region’s humpbacks get tangled up.

Another major problem is whales getting hit by ships, and for that, adjustments to shipping lanes and speeds are part of the solution. The entanglement issues are messier culturally and legally. But the technology for fixing it has been developed and is available.

Zach Klyver is an evangelist for one major potential solution. If ropes are the problem, eliminate the need for rope. He is testing, deploying, and preaching such a system. It’s made by the not-for-profit company…

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Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World paulgreenberg.org