Editorial: The tangled demise of right whales

  • In this April 10, 2008 file photo, a North Atlantic right whale peers up from the water as another whale passes behind in Cape Cod Bay near Provincetown, Mass. AP

Published: 3/18/2018 12:10:09 AM

The late poet and novelist James Dickey, a national poet laureate, watched nature disappear and wrote about it with rage and power. In his novel Deliverance, a river was about to disappear and four friends decided to see it one last time by canoe. In his poem “For the Last Wolverine,” the ferocious, solitary creature tough enough to stop “the flakes in the air with a look” is everything wild that falls before the spread of man. The creature’s last words are the scream of every species now extinct, “Lord, let me die but not die Out.”

Right whales, off New Hampshire’s coast it’s the North Atlantic right whale, are in danger of dying out. There are only 450, give or take a dozen or so, left on Earth. Last year, 17 right whales died and no whale calves are known to have been born.

Right whales are gentle giants 60 feet long and 100 tons, that feed by straining tiny crustaceans and other food out of seawater with brush-like baleen. Once prized by whale hunters because they can be found close to shore, float when dead and can be rendered into great quantities of oil, they are among the world’s most endangered species. Though capable of living 70 years, most die before reaching 30, primarily from entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. In what could be a last ditch effort to save the animals two environmental groups, the Conservation Law Foundation and Earthjustice, sued to force the federal government to do more to protect the whales. Past efforts like rerouting ships around whale feeding areas and migration routes and setting lower marine speed limits have helped, but the whale population continues to shrink. If more isn’t done, the group’s scientists warn, right whales could be extinct by 2040.

Most right whale deaths – 85 percent according to marine biologists who conduct autopsies when dead whales are found – are caused by entanglement in nets, ropes and traps. Nearly all right whales, when seen from the air, show signs of being entangled in ropes and lines, which are made of synthetic materials that are much stronger than the ropes of old. Entanglement exhausts whales and can prevent them from feeding, and ropes cut through fat, muscle and bone. It has been described as the accidental torture of intelligent, harmless creatures.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies overseeing the seas must do more. We cannot allow the third largest animal species on the planet to disappear. The caring public should demand that New Hampshire’s congressional delegation pressure the agencies to act.

Right whale areas off limits to fishing must be expanded. Rules mandating the use of break-away links in fishing gear must be stringently enforced. An all-out effort must be made to improve the technology and lower the cost of rope-less crab and lobster traps that can rise to the surface when summoned or, using locator beacons on the traps, be found and retrieved from above.

Tougher rules and new technology will add to the woes of what’s left of the fishing industry, but consumers could help by agreeing to pay a premium for seafood harvested in ways that don’t doom whales. Lobster and crab, once a food for the incarcerated and the poor, have become an expensive treat rather than a regular part of almost anyone’s diet. To help save a species from extinction, most consumers would pay another buck a pound to dine with a clear conscience.

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