Save The North Atlantic Right Whale – Don’t Order Lobster!

How Removing American Lobster From The Menu Might Save A Critically Endangered Whale

The use of lobster nets and pots poses such a serious threat to the survival of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale that fisheries using these methods have been assigned red ratings by the sustainability guide Seafood Watch.

The population of these whales has declined by 28% over the last decade, and now fewer than 340 individuals remain. Of these, only 80 are breeding females. The two main threats to the species’ survival are entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes.

By removing American lobster (and other species caught using similar methods) from the menu, businesses can help save the North Atlantic right whale.

Why Does The North Atlantic Right Whale Matter?

North Atlantic right whale with dolphins
North Atlantic right whale with dolphins. Photo: National Marine Sanctuaries

Thanks mainly to a long history of human exploitation stretching back as far as the 11th century, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered species of whale.

The species’ name originates from early whalers, who deemed the whale the “right” whale to hunt. This was due to the species’ docile nature, its habit of moving slowly near the surface while feeding, and its high blubber content, which provided large amounts of whale oil and caused it to float when killed.

The North Atlantic right whale was once found all across the Northern Atlantic Ocean, but although it has been protected from hunting since the 1930s, the species' eastern North Atlantic population is so small that many scientists believe it to be functionally extinct in the region.

Today, the North Atlantic right whale is mostly found along the coast of North America, but with its numbers being reduced by entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and separation from calving areas due to shipping traffic, the species’ population is growing so slowly that any small change in its ecosystem could have disastrous consequences.

The Link Between Lobster And Whale

Throughout the U.S. and Canada, vertical lines are used to catch a range of seafood, including American lobster, crab, and several fish species. These lines hang in the water, stretching between a trap on the seabed and a buoy on the surface, and are found throughout the North Atlantic right whale’s range.

When the whales migrate from their calving grounds in Florida to their feeding grounds in Canada, they must swim a gauntlet of over a million lines.

The Dangers Of Entanglement

A study carried out by the New England Aquarium looked at scarring patterns on the bodies of North Atlantic right whales and found that over 80% of individuals have been entangled in fishing gear at least once in their lives, and that entanglement was the leading cause of death in the species (source).

When entangled in ropes, whales are unable to swim properly and are weighed down by the heavy gear. The lines cut into the whales’ skin, causing them eventually to succumb to their injuries, usually by drowning or starvation.

Even if a whale does manage to free itself of the lines, it is believed that it will be significantly weakened and vulnerable to further injury.

Since 2017, the North Atlantic right whale has been at the center of what has been dubbed an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), with 34 individuals having been killed, either by entanglement or ship strikes.

A further 20 whales have been seriously injured and despite being alive, were unlikely to survive their injuries (source).

With the whale’s population so low, this number of mortalities is significant and cannot be ignored if the species is to recover.

Seafood Watch’s Ratings

Seafood Watch is a major fish sustainability guide, run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and works to assess U.S. and Canadian fisheries, rating the seafood caught based on environmental sustainability, and helping to inform consumers and businesses about their purchases.

When looking at impacts on the North Atlantic right whale, Seafood Watch reviewed all the available scientific data and determined that the current measures put in place by fisheries do not do enough to mitigate entanglement risks and promote recovery of the species.

For the whale’s population to recover, less than one whale must be killed each year, but this has been exceeded almost every year since 1995. (source)

As a result, Seafood Watch gave those fisheries that use pots, traps, and gillnets a red rating.

How Will These Ratings Help Whales?

Seafood Watch’s ratings have the potential to greatly improve the species’ prospects. Thousands of businesses use their ratings and recommendations to inform their buying decisions, with many, including Wholefoods, HelloFresh, and over 25,000 grocery stores, restaurants, and food distribution services, already pledging to avoid red-listed items.

A Previous Success Story

There is cause to be hopeful, as Seafood Watch has a solid track record of improving the sustainability of fisheries.

Sea turtles were once threatened by the use of trawl nets used by Louisiana shrimp fisheries (the turtles would drown after becoming trapped in the nets).

In 2013, Seafood Watch added these fisheries to its red list, and by 2015, new legislation came into effect that required shrimp fishermen to fit nets with escape hatches. The hatches are proven to reduce mortality by 97%.

In light of the state’s action, Seafood Watch re-evaluated its assessment and was able to remove these fisheries from the red list, allowing them to run as successful businesses whilst reducing turtle bycatch.

The Future Of Fisheries

Because over 90% of all entanglements cannot be attributed to any single type of fishing gear, Seafood Watch considers all gear to be a risk to whales. This means that fisheries must make changes to the way they work in order to reduce entanglement and thereby improve their rating.

Traditional gear involves a trap on the sea floor being connected by rope to a floating buoy, which enables the trap to be located and retrieved. New methods are being introduced that use much less rope and do not need this tether.

There are currently three on-demand, “ropeless” alternatives:

  • Pop-up Buoy - The vertical line that is attached to the traps is coiled in a cage on the ocean floor and when a signal is received from the boat on the surface, the buoy is released, uncoiling the line, and allowing the gear to be retrieved immediately.
  • Inflatable Lift Bag - A deflated bag is attached to the traps and when a signal is sent, the bag inflates and rises to the surface, allowing the traps to be collected.
  • Buoyant Spool – A line is wrapped around a buoyant spool and tethered to a weight on the seafloor. When a signal from the boat is sent, the spool is released and ascends to the surface, unwinding the line ready for retrieval. (source)

Fisheries can only be considered truly sustainable if they don’t affect the North Atlantic right whale.

In addition to reducing vertical lines, the conservation group Oceana has suggested that tracking fishing vessels, and pausing fishing in areas in which North Atlantic right whales are present, will further protect the species.

Ordering lobster from the menu shouldn’t threaten the survival of critically endangered whales, and it is possible for both fisheries and whales to thrive in our oceans.

Discover More With Active Wild

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