Saving endangered right whales may require Maryland fishermen to make some sacrifices | COMMENTARY

A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod Bay off the coast of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Scientists released new data on Oct. 24, 2022, that showed a vanishing species of whale declined in population by about 2% last year. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

Maine lobster has become somewhat controversial in recent months, as conservation groups identified the gear fishermen use to trap lobster (specifically, the vertical lines used to retrieve traps) as a threat to the already-endangered North Atlantic right whale. Critics took issue with the propriety of serving lobster to French President Emmanuel Macron — even if butter-poached with American Osetra caviar — at the first state dinner of Joe Biden’s presidency on Dec. 1. And Whole Foods announced last month it would stop carrying Maine lobster in its stores, as it was no longer regarded as sustainable by the nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council or California-based Seafood Watch. Yet getting entangled with lobster gear in the Gulf of Maine or Georges Bank is not the only threat facing right whales.

Last week, the international conservation organization Oceana filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Department of Commerce and National Marine Fisheries Service to set stricter speed limits on boats as pregnant and nursing female right whales, as well as their calves, are particularly vulnerable to getting struck by fast-moving boats because this is the time of year when they travel near the surface in a migration from their North Atlantic breeding grounds to warmer waters off South Carolina, Georgia and Northern Florida. Maryland has a small chunk of this coastal “seasonal management area” from now through May, and that may offer a conflict.


Slowing boats that are 35 feet to 65 feet in length to a proposed 10 knots could prove problematic to Ocean City charter fishers who routinely take their customers out in offshore, deep-water “canyons,” the closest of which is 53 nautical miles away, for big-game fish like Yellowfin Tuna. Slow vessels from 35 knots (roughly 40 miles per hour) to 10 knots (about 11.5 mph), and a one-way trip to the canyons can go from 90 minutes to more than four hours.

It would be easy to jump on the side of Maryland small business owners and amateur fisherfolk to protest this proposal. But it’s not like Oceana is coming up with this idea out of the blue. The Commerce Department announced it was considering a similar change this summer but has yet to take action. And the threat to right whales is serious. The federal government estimates that there are only about 340 members of the species left. And what is their leading cause of death? Vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglements (along with the detrimental effects of human-made climate change that have pushed them out of their previous habitat areas). The number of documented right whale deaths by collision isn’t large — four in the last 2 1/2 years — but with such a small population, there’s not much wiggle room. The federal government has been instituting speed limits on larger boats in the right whale migration path since 2008; this would simply extend the boundaries and apply it to more vessels.


The question comes down to this: If we aren’t willing to save the right whale, who will? As Oceana has observed, the window to save the whale is narrowing each day, particularly when there are so few breeding females left. And how much of a hardship would this be for Maryland charter boat captains whose peak season runs from June to October? Is there not room for compromise here? That the species is critically endangered today is entirely of human making, given how whales were exploited for oil, meat and bones for centuries (hence the name “right” whale — as in the right whale to hunt). They are magnificent creatures growing up to 55 feet long and weighing as much as 70 tons.

And so we would call upon those who have booked offshore fishing trips from Maryland, or are considering doing so in the future, to reach out to captains and call on them to support stricter speed limits in Mid-Atlantic waters during this critical time in the right whale’s life cycle. Just as seafood consumers should not buy lobster caught by gear that puts whales in harm’s way, so should prospective deep-sea fishermen not book trips on charter boats that do the same. That’s not being “woke,” it’s simply being protective of our children’s future and passing along a planet as biologically diverse as the one we inherited.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.