The Lobsterman and the Right Whale. A new novel by Hemingway? Not quite.

The recent protests over National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regulations are over boiled. Did lobstermen cause the problem? No. Is lobstering in Maine waters causing significant injury or mortality? Perhaps not.

To suggest, however, that one can state with certainty that right whales are not harmed or killed in Maine waters is absurd. The absence of evidence does not prove evidence of absence of harm. The lobster industry’s desire for data to establish a negative impact is laudable and reasonable; however, if you are looking for supremely explanatory data, you will not find it.

The whale population is extremely low, making research problematic. A marine denizen is especially difficult to study; studying a migratory marine mammal is a biologic uncertainty principle that Heisenberg himself would appreciate. Moreover, an entangled whale can travel for hundreds of miles. Due to its blubber content, even a dead right whale can sojourn on the currents and become deposited on distant shores.

What we do know with adamantine clarity is that the species is in grave peril. This is the salient fact.

Recall that not long ago lobstermen were slaughtering seals thought to endanger their livelihood. Both seals and lobstermen are still in business. Imagine that.


The whirlwind of umbrage by the Maine delegation is misguided. A bit too facile for our delegation to go with the tide. They all defend the lobstermen. Trouble is, the whale doesn’t have a constituency. I found Rep. Jared Golden’s comments particularly disturbing. Now that conservation is increasingly difficult, he wants to change the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Isn’t that the way of things? Doing the right thing collapses before political expediency.

And suing NOAA? I cannot conceive of a worse idea, burning funds through years of judicial wrangling. Attacking NOAA for performing its due diligence is counterproductive. Lawyers and better data are not the answer.

To frame this argument, a morsel of history. Modern whales have existed on Earth for 34 million years. Prior to any right whale absorbing a harpoon through its lungs, the estimated population was 21,000. After that first bloody lance performed its fatal work, the population plummeted to less than 100, similar to other environmental catastrophes, like the total collapse of Atlantic cod stocks.

A profound moral impetus supports these regulations. The New England states were integral to the commercial whaling industry. “Maine Yankee whaler” is a phrase that resonates with that history. For several hundred years, New England states commercially benefited from the slaughter of the right whale. New Englanders profited from this industry. As a result, a moral imperative transfers to us all. Shoulder the responsibility, don’t go pandering to change the laws established specifically for situations as this. Our blood lust to harpoon these creatures must be expiated by sacrifice for their survival.

No Pollyanna, I see a win-win opportunity.

  • Instead of podium wonking, elected officials could obtain the federal funds to assist the Maine lobstermen, obtain Canadian cooperation and obtain public funds for initial equipment purchases (billions for Ukraine, a few orts for Maine).
  • Private donations to a lobstermen’s trust fund could help defray costs — not just pay legal fees.
  • A GPS transponder system could be embedded in the whales with concomitant receivers required in any ships, commercial or otherwise, large enough to cause harm. Levy large fines for ship strikes, the proceeds bolstering the relief funds.

There was once plenty of cooperation pulling the oars to kill the whales. Don’t send this exquisite creature into the abyss of oblivion because we can’t pull our oars together now.

Whalers said it was the right whale to kill. Now, it is the right whale to save.

Kenneth P. Burke, M.D., is a resident of New Portland.

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