Martha’s Vineyard was the most recent scene of a tragedy that has been playing out up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Canada to Florida.
A dead female North Atlantic right whale, just 3 years old, washed ashore last week at Cow Bay in Edgartown.
A Feb. 1 postmortem examination, known as a necropsy, of the young whale confirmed what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determined was a “chronic entanglement, with rope deeply embedded in the tail and thin body condition.”
There was no evidence of blunt-force trauma, which can be caused by boat strikes. And there was no indication of any contributing factors that would be related to the Vineyard Wind project. The official cause of death is pending further diagnostic testing, which can take weeks to complete.
What we know for sure right now, as the investigation continues, is that the death of right whales has become all too common.
The population is in steady decline; many experts believe the species is on the edge of extinction, with only about 350 remaining in the wild, and with only 70 breeding females believed to be plying the oceans. This makes last week’s news even more devastating, as the whale at Cow Bay was a female, known to NOAA as No. 5120. The young whale was first spotted with an entanglement 18 months ago off the coast of Canada, and there was hope that she could soon breed.
While fatal in this case, the entanglement is hardly an uncommon occurrence: The New England Aquarium estimates that 86 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once in their lives, some as many as nine times.
The aquarium reports that 17 right whale calves have been born in the current calving season, far fewer than are needed to sustain the species. Of those 17, two have disappeared, and are believed to be dead; a third was seen off the coast of South Carolina with serious injuries believed to be sustained from a propeller. Researchers don’t believe the calf will survive.
There are a multiplicity of factors stressing the whale population, including shipping, fishing, the wind industry, and, of course, the impacts of climate change on the ocean. On the Vineyard, some people have been quick to blame the offshore wind industry for the suffering of whales. Coupled with the increase in seal strandings on the Island in January and the construction of Vineyard Wind miles off the shore of the Island, some have asked, How could the major construction project not have an impact on this death?
While we are still understanding the impact of offshore wind development on marine mammals — and while the federal government has acknowledged that noise from energy production offshore can impact marine mammals — it is important to note that by far the leading cause of right whale deaths has been entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes.
The key now is for all of us to follow the evidence and to learn from it, and to be sure action is taken to protect the whales in a way that also balances the practical considerations of the fishing industry.
So what can be done? With support from the National Marine Fisheries Services, New England lobster fishermen are testing the use of on-demand fishing systems, more commonly referred to as ropeless fishing gear. The idea is to reduce the number of vertical lines that fisheries use, in order to decrease obstacles for the whales.
Traditional lobster fishers drop their lobster traps to the bottom of the ocean. Vertical lines attached to the traps travel to the ocean surface, so the traps can be retrieved.
The idea with the ropeless gear is that fishers will use a button to trigger a system that will allow the cages to float to the service; in some instances, the remote trigger may unspool a fishing line attached to the lobster trap and let it float to the surface, where a crew can then pull the catch aboard. Either way, the goal is to keep vertical lines out of a whale’s path.
And there are at least two practical questions that need to be addressed: how to mark traps on the sea floor, so fishermen don’t take the wrong gear, and how already economically strapped fishermen will pay for the new gear.
It is estimated the expense would cut deeply into profits of fishermen who are already struggling to make a living. Even if the gear were free, there are reports that the additional challenges posed with the new gear would be too costly for fishermen. There are options like using the gear only when right whales are in the area.
It is not only fishing lines, blunt trauma from propellers, and the impacts of offshore wind that threaten whales; there is also the peril posed by the ways in which climate change and warming waters are changing the migratory patterns for whales, and having a profound impact on the species.
All of these threats need to be studied, and we will need to rely on science to guide us toward understanding and to finding solutions. The federal government recently released a new strategy on how to protect marine life during the construction of offshore wind. While the strategy is only recently released, some advocates — including the New England Aquarium — have attacked it for not going far enough.
How to balance the need to address climate change by limiting the use of fossil fuels, which includes expanding our capacity for wind power, will require all of us to rely on a practical, fact-based approach to protecting marine life, particularly the right whale, which looms large in the history of New England communities as our link to the legacy of whaling.
As we seek to gather facts and find the right balance, blaming the offshore wind industry is shortsighted, as climate change poses an existential threat not just to whales, but to our own future as a species.