Want to save the whales? Reconsider the lobster, some say.

Too many endangered whales are drowning in fishing rope in the North Atlantic. But Maine lobstermen say there’s little evidence their gear is to blame.

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
8 min

Want to save the whales? Don’t order the lobster.

That’s the message from a growing chorus of conservationists that is setting off a tense debate in New England towns, the halls of Congress and courtrooms around the country.

With only an estimated 340 right whales left in the North Atlantic, too many of the massive marine mammals, biologists say, are getting entangled in fishing gear along the East Coast for the critically endangered species to survive.

But lobstermen and their legislators in Washington are outraged at the notion that eating the renowned shellfish is bad for whales. Maine’s thousands of licensed lobstermen, they say, do everything required under the law to reduce the risk of snaring right whales.

“We have a sustainable resource,” said Steve Train, a lobsterman based in Long Island, Maine. “People should be able to feel good about eating Maine lobster.”

Yet there is more pressure than ever on Americans to forgo the fancy crustacean. Whole Foods is phasing out Maine lobster. Even President Biden got backlash for serving butter-poached lobster at the state dinner he hosted Thursday for French President Emmanuel Macron. What diners decide to do could help determine the fate of an iconic fishing industry — and a whale in danger of disappearing.

A whale of a fight

Few creatures define a region’s cuisine quite like lobster defines New England’s.

Its shores once teemed with so many that Native Americans crushed the crustaceans for fertilizer. Long before it was a restaurant delicacy, lobster may have been on the first Thanksgiving menu.

These whales are on the brink. Now comes climate change — and wind power.

But the North Atlantic right whale is — or was — a New England icon, too. Whalers sailing out of Nantucket and other ports hunted them by the thousands, harvesting carcasses for oil to light lamps and lubricate machinery.

Swimming slowly and dwelling near shore, the species may have gotten its name since it was the “right” one to harpoon.

While lobsters persisted, the right whale population plummeted. The few hundred remaining animals are still vulnerable long after the whalers are gone.

Boat strikes and rising temperatures that may be shifting the abundance of the krill they eat now threaten them. But it is entanglements in fishing gear that are a leading cause of death, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for protecting right whales.

A prominent sustainable-seafood guide, the Marine Stewardship Council, is removing its stamp of approval this month from Gulf of Maine lobsters after a federal court ruling that too many whales are dying in entanglements.

The loss of the nonprofit’s recognizable blue label arrives just as a separate sustainability guide, Seafood Watch, recommended earlier this year against buying lobster caught in either American or Canadian waters, giving the shellfish a “red” rating.

“We are raising a flag that there is an environmental issue,” said Jennifer Dianto Kemmerly, vice president of global ocean initiatives at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, which runs Seafood Watch. “There is a whale species on the brink of extinction.”

The suspensions have sparked a flurry of letters and legislation from Maine’s congressional delegation defending the famed fishery. The state’s Democratic and Republican lawmakers both insist there is no proof that lobstering is driving right whales toward extinction.

“In a court of law for a criminal case, it’s beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “In a civil case, it’s a preponderance of the evidence. In this case, it’s no evidence. It’s assumptions. And that’s what really bothers me.”

Maine lobstermen say they are already doing their part by including weak links in lines to allow whales to more easily break free and marking gear with purple to identify traps.

No right whale, they add, is documented as dying entwined in Maine gear, pointing much of the blame for recent deaths on vessel strikes in Canada. The last whale known to get entangled in lobster rope from Maine was in 2004.

“We might as well be saving kangaroos,” said Train, who like many in the business comes from a long line of lobstermen that includes his brother, father and grandfather.

Already contending with low lobster prices and high fuel costs, lobstermen are feeling a pinch from the loss of lobster’s sustainable status.

The high-end supermarket Whole Foods, a subsidiary of Amazon, is pausing the purchase of Gulf of Maine lobster until either seafood guide upgrades the crustacean’s classification. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The meal-kit providers Blue Apron and HelloFresh have also taken lobster off their menus, though both companies say they decided to do so before Seafood Watch’s rating.

“This is 5,000 small businesses that employ one, two or three people to a boat,” said Train. “This isn’t an industry the way you know industry.”

For Virginia Olsen, a fifth-generation lobster fisher, if lobster flown in from Maine was good enough for Biden’s first state dinner, it should be good enough for the detractors, too.

“He’s using our product and that to me says he knows that it’s a sustainable product,” said Olsen, a political director at the Maine Lobstering Union.

‘We’re all catching whales’

But a coalition of right whale scientists called those claims “inaccurate.”

Rope often slips off carcasses, they note, which makes determining where a whale got entangled difficult. Sometimes the only evidence of entanglement is a series of deep scars on whales that wash ashore.

And the male whale found entangled in 2004 remained ensnared for years. The remaining population is so small that many right whales get names. This one, dubbed “Kingfisher,” hasn’t been seen in seven years, and is presumed dead.

These whales are so decimated that a single birth was cheered by scientists

“We’re all catching whales in one way or another,” said Michael Moore, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who performs necropsies on beached whale carcasses. “It comes down to, do we care about lobster on the table or keeping the whales off the beach?”

But fewer whales may be migrating to the Gulf of Maine as its prey moves in the warming ocean, lobstermen note. King, the senator from Maine, noted that Seafood Watch’s report on lobster in U.S. waters did not include a map of the changing whale distribution.

“That’s intellectual dishonesty,” King said.

“I don’t want to see the demise of the right whale,” he added, “but I want to be sure that what we’re doing to protect them will actually do so without severe collateral damage.”

In response to the “red” rating, the Maine delegation introduced a bill in October cutting federal funding to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Since opening 38 years ago, it has received less than $20 million in federal funds, some of it going toward rescuing stranded sea otters.

The California aquarium said it just wants to help consumers make informed choices. “We don’t call for boycotts,” spokesman Kevin Connor said. “It’s about awareness.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service updated requirements last year to reduce the number of buoy lines in the water and restrict fishing during parts of the year.

The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans

But in November, a district court ordered the agency to write a stronger rule by 2024 following a lawsuit from environmentalists arguing the government is falling short of its obligations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act to defend the whales from lobstering.

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, which helped bring the lawsuit, hopes the agency mandates the use of traps with no rope at all. So-called “ropeless” gear can ascend from the sea floor with an inflatable but is more costly than traditional lobstering equipment.

“We recognize that change is hard, but that doesn’t mean that change shouldn’t happen,” she said. “Here we need massive changes to how the fishery operates in order to save the species.”

These whales will be extinct in 25 years, scientists say — unless we act now to save them

While wildlife managers work on new regulation, right whales keep getting ensnared.

A female whale named “Snow Cone” is no stranger to fishing gear. The 27-year-old has been snarled in rope at least four times.

Last year, she fought off the exhaustion of dragging rope from her latest entanglement to swim from the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada to calving grounds off the coast of Georgia to give birth. Mother and calf migrated back north to Cape Cod Bay off Massachusetts.

But by September this year, her situation was grim. Her skin was pale and gray. Her jaw infested with whale lice. Her body entangled in new fishing gear. And her calf nowhere to be found.

“She wasn’t really swimming,” said Katherine McKenna, a research assistant at the New England Aquarium, who spotted Snow Cone that month from a research plane flying south of Nantucket. “You could tell that she was in very poor health.”

She has not been seen since.

This article is part of Animalia, a column exploring the strange and fascinating world of animals and the ways in which we appreciate, imperil and depend on them.