An average Maine high school has about 350 students. The number of North Atlantic right whales that seasonally cruise our waters is exactly the same: 360.

Thousands of them, the largest of all, fed, bred and calved around here until things got really, really bad. They live the same age as we do all going well which it is not. The numbers are so low that extinction looms: Fewer females mean fewer calves. Last week a newborn male calf washed up dead. A 4-year-old male is somewhere in the North Atlantic badly entangled in fishing and rope gear. Nothing can be done for him. An 11-year-old male similarly entangled is now presumed dead, his monitoring signal lost.

Every one of the 360 has been identified, cataloged and given a code name by the New England Aquarium. Each is listed as critically endangered – unlike a typical high school student, who, last time I checked, seemed to be doing just fine, even under COVID restrictions. A now-retired local high school teacher’s class adopted a right whale when there were still 430 around. Reproduction is imperiled because there are fewer female right whales to mate with the males.

There is nothing complicated about what causes whale mortality, and nothing new about the torture and abuse whales suffer when entangled with heavy ropes that over time deteriorate and cut into their flesh, slicing them in two. They drag the equivalent of a pickup truck or two before suffocating to death in great pain. This is animal abuse by anyone’s reckoning.

The cause is crab and lobster fishing as well as ship strikes.

There are 5,109 licensed lobster boats in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Fishermen (and women) lower 3 million traps and pots into Maine waters and 400,000 vertical lines tie those traps together, creating a forest of lines to a cruising whale and other marine life, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found. Each vertical line represents mortal danger underwater.

Lobstermen are not bad guys: Some volunteer the dangerous work of disentangling whales in open seas. They need incentives and rewards (just like any of us) to change their fishing methods. Imagine a time when lobsters are tagged with a cruelty-free tag, like tunafish cans have.

What is to be done for on-the-verge-of-extinction mammals that are not soft and cuddly? We need a Pandemic Emergency Program for right whales. This does not come cheap – just like the government subsidizing us citizens out during the emergency COVID shutdown.

Equip all boats with whale-friendly fishing gear called pop-ups to reduce the number of lines. It would cost $215,000 to equip a typical boat fishing with 25 trawls. $86 million would equip 400 boats fishing offshore (where most entanglements occur). This is a pittance relative to lives of critically endangered whales protected, the cost of two school buses. Our government is rich and can subsidize every penny IF there is political support.

Worth the cost? Press yes if you agree and contact the powers that be. Press no, if like with the passenger pigeon, you are OK with extinction.


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