Steamship PETA ad roils Islanders

A poster depicts the plight of right whales, and encourages veganism.

A poster by PETA hung aboard the SSA passenger ferry Martha's Vineyard. —Eunki Seonwoo

In the hallways of the Steamship Authority (SSA) passenger ferry Martha’s Vineyard, six posters were recently put on display asking passengers a provocative question: “Did your lobster kill a whale?” 

The 22- by 28-inch advertisements — made by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA — are aimed at raising awareness over the plight of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, and to encourage veganism.

According to the SSA, the animal rights advocacy organization paid a total of $28,000 to hang their posters through Oct. 31.

But the advertisements have incensed some Islanders and local fishermen, who say the local fishing industry is unfairly targeted. Some even point a finger at the Steamship, calling the ferry service hypocritical for allowing the ads when the administration has questioned regulations that would protect right whales.

The posters feature a picture of a right whale — although some Islanders stated it more closely resembled a humpback whale — with a message that states, “North Atlantic right whales are dying in lobster gear.” The poster also has a QR code, leading to a PETA webpage advocating for people to not eat fish and other aquatic animals, saying that commercial fishing practices have killed whales, and that the industry has “destroyed our ocean’s ecosystem.”

PETA associate media officer Sara Groves told the Times that the current display is scheduled to run through July 31, and the group plans to run another ad on the vessel “urging riders to go vegan” starting August 1.

PETA’s decision to advertise on the Vineyard route ferry was triggered by the dead juvenile female right whale that washed ashore in Edgartown in January. Although a final necropsy report has not been released, federal officials determined that the whale likely died as a result of a rope that was embedded in the whale’s tail that was consistent with line used in Maine for trap and pot buoys. 

Groves said they wanted to give Steamship riders a “thought-provoking message.” 

“PETA hopes to reach as many Martha’s Vineyard residents and visitors as possible this summer, to let them know that imperiled right whales shouldn’t sustain fatal injuries from fishing gear any more than lobsters — who certainly feel pain — should be boiled alive,” Groves said. “We want people who marvel at the sight of majestic whales and are moved by this issue to think twice when looking at a menu, and decide to help save whales, lobsters, and all other animal species by choosing vegan fare.”

Since going up, the ads eventually made their way to social media, where they have caused somewhat of an uproar, with commentators upset that PETA was targeting commercial fishermen, a profession many Vineyarders have been a part of for generations. 

Heather La Marque brought the poster to Vineyarders’ eyes on the local Facebook group Islanders Talk on May 3, calling it a “colossal insult.” Riled-up Islanders lambasted the SSA for allowing the poster to be put up, some calling for it to be taken down. 

The SSA’s official Facebook account did respond to La Marque’s post, saying PETA’s posters complied with the ferry service’s advertising policy guidelines, and that the advertisers do not represent or reflect the opinion of the SSA or the state. 

“Any advertiser has an equal opportunity to purchase advertising space in accordance with our advertising policy and procedure,” the SSA comment reads. 

When asked whether there was any discretion for posters that could be considered provocative, SSA communications director Sean Driscoll told The Times, “The policy is viewpoint-neutral. So, no, there is no discretion for a poster that may be ‘provocative,’ which is a subjective reaction.” 

Others on social media also ridiculed the ad because the whale depicted more closely resembled a humpback whale than a North Atlantic right whale. PETA has maintained that the image is an artist’s rendition of a right whale. Further, Grove added that “all whales matter,” noting that many marine species are harmed, and oftentimes killed, after getting tangled in fishing gear.

When reached by The Times, Vineyard commercial fishermen weren’t pleased to see the ads. 

Island lobsterman Wes Brighton called the Steamship Authority “out of touch with the community.” 

Brighton also told The Times that the more the lobster industry is targeted and ridiculed, the less likely it is that resources will go to developing equipment to minimize the impact to marine mammals, such as ropeless fishing gear. Brighton said that while the equipment does exist, research is still ongoing to make them cost-effective for working fishermen. 

“To use this charismatic megafauna to demote the lobster industry and promote their cause seems horribly wrong,” Brighton said.

Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Preservation Trust president John Keene was unaware of the advertisement when The Times initially reached him, but after seeing the poster he said he was shocked this kind of messaging would be displayed on a Steamship ferry.

Jason Gale, another Island lobsterman, said he wasn’t surprised. He pointed out that other organizations have also targeted the lobster industry, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The aquarium red-listed lobster fisheries in the U.S. and Canada in 2022, due to risks they pose to the endangered North Atlantic right whales. The red list sets standards for thousands of restaurants and businesses across the country. 

Gale admitted there was some truth in what the posters read. But he said Massachusetts has been working for years to help keep right whales safer from commercial fishing; they’ve adapted with buoy lines that are designed to break when making impact with a whale, and the state has also issued closures to coincide with the presence of right whales. Gale said the demand for lobsters remains high, and that the right whale population has recovered compared with the 1990s, when commercial fishing regulations in the state were less stringent. 

In 1990, there were around 260 right whales in the world, and the population did rebound to nearly 500. But NOAA now estimates there are only about 360 remaining today.

Gale pointed out that vessel strikes are also a leading cause of right whale deaths. “I find it bothersome that the focus is always on entanglement,” Gale said. 

According to NOAA, vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements are the leading causes of right whale deaths. While only a third of right whale deaths are documented, NOAA found that between 2017 and 2024, 15 right whales died from vessel strikes, while nine right whales died by entanglements. But NOAA also states that there have likely been significantly more right whale injuries from entanglements. Between 2017 and 2024, entanglements led to 30 serious right whale injuries, and 49 cases of sublethal injuries and illnesses. Vessel strikes led to three serious injuries, and five cases of sublethal injuries and illnesses. 

Local fishermen say that entanglement in fishing gear tends to happen outside of Massachusetts waters, such as in Canada, which does not have as restrictive regulations for fishermen. 

Meanwhile, several Islanders have called out the SSA as being hypocritical for allowing the posters when the ferry service has opposed vessel speed-reduction regulations proposed by NOAA. The regulations are designed to protect right whales from vessel strikes. 

The ferry service has written testimony against the proposal. Robert Davis, the SSA’s general manager, also went to Washington, D.C., in March to lobby Massachusetts lawmakers against the proposed regulation. The proposal would lead to restricted speed limits in Vineyard waters for more than half the year, which the SSA argues would severely impact both the Nantucket and Vineyard routes, even reducing the number of ferries it could run per day. 

Gale said he felt the PETA advertisement seemed like a diversion away from the speed regulations; Keene called the poster placements “ironic.” 

The SSA has stated in its testimony that right whales have never been spotted along its ferry routes in Vineyard or Nantucket sounds during its 60 years of operation. 

For the SSA, officials maintain that the connection between the proposed speed-reduction regulations and the poster were “nonexistent.” 

“We commented on the proposed regulations, stating that they would be detrimental to the Islands’ ability to continue to receive the necessities of life, and pointed out that we have never documented a right whale sighting in these waters,” Driscoll said. “That comment came years before this advertising buy was contracted.”


  1. I can see how some people would take offense at this.
    But we live in America, and there is a lot of offensive
    advertising out there that is protected by the first
    amendment. I am offended by Jesus billboards..,
    he is supposedly sending every “non believer” to hell
    for eternity. I fall into that category. I don’t particularly
    think he loves me or the LGBTQ community–but I have to
    drive by them because I live in America and some organization
    is willing to spend money on a message they believe in.
    Yeah, I agree with Jason Gale– The fisherpersons here are
    doing a pretty good job of trying to prevent marine mammal
    deaths, and are likely being unfairly targeted.
    Everybody has an opinion, and if the PETA people want to spend
    their advertising dollars on a poster on a boat, they can do it.
    And everybody if free to ignore it.
    it’s just a poster.

  2. What!!! The Steamship is now a billboard for extreme agendas or are they just selling space to the highest bidder? Shameful in a traditional fishing community.

    • Whale Conservation is not a extreme agenda.
      The Island has a long tradition in fishing.
      Just look at all the Whaling Captains fine homes…

      • PETA’s agendas are all extreme. How about at least having a poster that says “My lobster put a roof over a family’s head”.

        • What is “ extreme” about compassion for our fellow animals? PETA has convinced some of the world’s largest fashion brands to no longer use fur, they have been instrumental in the banning of animal testing by thousands of personal care companies, they were behind ending the use of animals in automobile crash tests, they were a main reason why Ringling Brothers ended the use of wild animals in their circus. PETA has done undercover work exposing the abuse of animals in Circuses, Labs, the Fur, Meat and Dairy Industries. PETA was also instrumental in closing down several Roadside Zoos where animals were sick and living in cages. Those animals were sent to Sanctuaries. They have been involved in getting animals out of labs and replacing them with modern technology. PETA is on the ground in many southern states helping dogs that are chained up and neglected, by getting them new dog houses and fenced in yards, bringing them to the Vets and getting them spayed/neutered. PETA is right now in the Ukraine rescuing dogs and cats. They have been involved in the rescue of thousands of animals who have been displaced in natural disasters across this Country, and the World. I’m sorry that you don’t agree with their poster on the Ferry. But this constant calling of those fighting for our fellow animals, who feel pain and fear, just as we do, “extreme “ is absolutely ridiculous.

          • So when all these animals are saved, what about all the animals that many of the “saved ones” will eat. If all life is sacred and of equal value and you save a whale, you have doomed billions of krill, small crustaceans, squid, and small fish. When you save a great white shark, you have doomed many whale calves to being eaten alive. Do you think the cats and dogs saved in Ukraine can be turned vegan? Who judges what living organism values its life more than another?
            You do know that PETA operates kill shelters, right? Or that their average executive salary is $253,307.00, making them well able to afford putting lots of lobstermen out of business.

        • Scott-I am sure you could make a poster to that effect
          and ask the SSA to post it. PETA gets its money from
          donations. How hard could it be in a community that
          relies on fishing for its livelihood and is incensed
          about this assault on it to raise 28 K for a counter argument ?
          We are in America–money talks, and we are free to express
          our opinions– even radical ones. And just so I am not misunderstood,
          I would not think that promoting the lobster persons is a radical

      • PETA’s agendas are all radical and often hypocritical. It is awful to start a campaign to destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of fisherman while supporting shark conservation, specifically great whites, which kill far more whale calves than modern fishing gear, and shameful for the Steamship to display this propaganda.
        I have seen the whaling captains homes on the island, and I am glad you agree, Albert, that they stand as reminders of the heritage of many island families.

  3. My comment about the population in the early 90s was a little misunderstood. The point I was trying to make was , that in 1990 there were 260+/- right whales left ,that number increased to 483 +/- in 2011 all the while lobstering was in full swing with no restrictions.
    It wasn’t because of no restrictions that the number was low.
    If lobstering efforts were a main culprit then it would have been reflected during those years but in fact it was the opposite , the numbers were rebounding nicely.
    Something happened in 2011 that made the numbers start to dip and it wasn’t the lobster industry , as the number of fishers and traps were drastically reduced by the state and federal government.
    We now have strict regulations in place and 75% less fishermen then in the 90s.
    Currently we have many restrictions in place to prevent entanglements.
    We’re the only maritime industry to make these adjustments in our practices. Cargo,Cruise and now the added OSW development industries are only growing and actually push back on speed restrictions, as mentioned in the article.
    I’d be willing to bet that if that poster read “stop traveling by vessel because shipstrikes are responsible for killing North American Right Whales” , the SSA would not would allow it to be posted.

  4. If we look at Alonzo Alley’s comment from two years ago, he mentioned that the warmer water in our oceans (plural) caused whales to die. (Check out his comment for the actual details).
    We have to face up to the warming of our planet and how we’re going to fix it! Electric cars operated by our own solar panels on our own garages is one of the most important ways to stop the warming. We must, must make the change!

  5. Speaking up for the animals is never wrong. If you don’t agree ignore the message.

  6. I was not pleased with that poster when I saw that. It also blows my mind that a ferry that serves a maritime community chose to have something like this on the ship. I haul gear part time with my daughter and she has a commercial student permit. I had one when I was younger. This is a long time fishery that has taken the brunt of a NOAA and other organizations. Support the Mass Lobstermen’s Association and help prob defend this the right way.

    • Re “…a ferry that serves a maritime community chose to have something like this on the ship,” I doubt that the SSA went out and “chose” this advertising.

      I assume anyone can purchase advertising space on SSA ships.
      Correct me if I am wrong about that.
      If I am not wrong about that, the SSA might find itself in a legal tangle if it refused to rent its space to a specific advertiser.
      Obviously, the advertiser is the one who “chose” to advertise on the SSA ferry for the reasons explained in the article–to reach a specific article.
      The USA is a free country, with a free market, so I hear.
      Fortunately the Times offers a space for knowledgeable readers to provide perspective on the POVs expressed in the ad.

  7. Great job hiring a new public advisor SSA!
    They must have trained in DC.

    This topic will take the focus off the failure of the company to provide a “life line to the Vineyard”

    What better topic than this to keep Islanders in a tizzy fighting for the lives of whales versus their delight to eat lobstah. Hahahaha.

      • Previously, A Bowdoin Van Riper commented (thank you for defining for us) that it would be difficult to build a bridge for the following reasons:
        1-High cost
        2-Interfere with ship traffic
        3-Would require land approaches
        4-Two badly-designed interchanges on the island
        Perhaps we begin to solve the low-hanging fruit first: redesign the two interchanges.
        Then we can get creative about how to install the land approaches and designing a bridge that can accommodate ship traffic.
        Last, but most importantly, we can begin a funding process, with multi-faceted streams of money. Most likely a significant toll.

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