A Beached Whale Has Reignited the Fight Between Conservationists and Maine’s Lobster Industry

At the end of January, an endangered female North Atlantic right whale washed ashore on Martha’s Vineyard. Federal officials found rope twisted around the dead whale’s tail, which had worn away flesh over time, evidence of a “chronic entanglement,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

On Wednesday, NOAA confirmed that these sea-worn ropes were from Maine lobstering gear, marking the first time federal officials have definitively linked a right whale entanglement to the New England state under new guidelines that require fishermen to mark their gear. Though scientists have not yet determined whether entanglement was the whale’s cause of death, this situation has already reignited a tense, long-standing debate between whale conservationists and the lobster industry in Maine. 

Brief backstory: North Atlantic right whales are in dire straits, with only around 360 individuals left in the wild. A barrage of threats has led to the species’ demise, from vessel strikes to climate change, which is affecting the right whales’ food supply and forcing them to forage in areas with fewer protections

But the single biggest killer of these marine giants are entanglements, which were responsible for at least 70 percent of right whale deaths between 2015 and 2019, according to NOAA

In 2022, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which runs a popular consumer seafood rating guide, deemed Maine’s lobster industry as one of the top entanglement threats to endangered right whales, prompting several food suppliers, including Whole Foods and HelloFresh, to pull the crustacean from their shelves. This sparked outcry from Maine officials and the lobster industry, which provided 18,000 jobs and brought in around $725 million in revenue across the state in 2021 alone. 

Where are we now? The issue has united Maine government officials across both sides of the aisle, who have repeatedly pushed back against proposed laws to limit lobstering activities to protect whales. Fast forward to present day, representatives from the lobster industry, Congress and conservation groups have all issued a flurry of statements in response to NOAA’s recent rope finding. 

“The death of the North Atlantic Right Whale found dead near Martha’s Vineyard and entangled in Maine fishing gear is unfortunate, but we have to be real about tradeoffs,” U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (D-ME) said in a statement. “I will continue to stand with Maine’s lobstermen in the face of any effort to use this incident to justify new mandates that would threaten their livelihoods and the foundation of communities that depend on this fishery.” 

On the other end of the spectrum, the New England Aquarium, which runs a program tracking North Atlantic right whales, has come out strongly about the need for urgency to prevent further species decline. 

“Given the density of rope in Maine waters, and the evidence of right whales and other large whales entangled in that rope, it is clear that it is a high-risk area for entanglements,” Heather Pettis, a research scientist in the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the Aquarium, told Inside Climate News in an email. 

In 2022, Maine’s Congressional delegation successfully secured a provision in a bill to prevent stricter rules and limits surrounding lobstering and gear from taking effect until 2029. For now, efforts to mitigate lobster’s impact on whales are focused mostly on the development of remotely activated “ropeless” gear, though lobstermen have signaled opposition toward this technology, according to the Portland Press Herald. With North Atlantic right whales barreling toward extinction, many environmentalists argue that there is no time to wait.

“We need to reduce and remove ropes in the water, including moving forward with the implementation of on-demand or ‘ropeless’ gear throughout the whales’ range,” Pettis said. 

Valentine’s Day Climate Protest Inflames Government Officials

As frustrations and fear around climate change build, it’s a story we have been seeing in various forms, but with the same type of headline: “Climate protesters throw [INSERT FOOD OR SUBSTANCE] at [INSERT FAMOUS ARTIFACT OR PAINTING].” 

This time, an historic document was the target. On Valentine’s Day, two climate activists dumped red powder on the case that holds the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. 

Black, white and red all over: During their demonstration, one of the protesters called on President Joe Biden to “please declare a climate emergency,” according to a video posted on the social media platform X. The two were immediately taken into custody, and confirmed to be part of the climate change activism group Declare Emergency, NBC News reported. 

The Constitution was not damaged due to the protective encasement that surrounds it, but officials had a critical response. “We take such vandalism very seriously and we will insist that the perpetrators be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said the U.S. Archivist Colleen Shogan in a statement. 

Climate Crackdowns: Some within the climate movement have called the effectiveness of activists’ tactics, particularly ones including displays at historic locations, into question. One thing that is certain is that punishments for climate protests are becoming increasingly severe.

In the U.S., more than a dozen states have passed new laws to issue harsh penalties on environmental protestors. Many of these have been fueled by industry, with companies sometimes footing the bill for police responses to protests such as the 2021 demonstration against Line 3 project in Minnesota in which pipeline company Enbridge funded everything from riot gear to Dairy Queen sundaes for law enforcement, reported Grist

These protests are heating up in the midst of the upcoming presidential race. Activists from the Sunrise Movement entered President Joe Biden’s campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, earlier this week, as my colleague Keerti Gopal reported, and climate activists recently crashed former President Donald Trump’s Iowa event. His response? Telling the protestors to “go home to mommy.” Trump has been more critical of activists in the past, particularly during the protests following the killing of George Floyd, in which the former president recommended that every governor “deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers” to “dominate the streets,” according to Politico. 

The climate protest crackdown is occurring outside the U.S., as well. The UK has enacted several measures to penalize protesters, which U.N. Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders Michel Forst called “draconian” in a January memo. In Uganda, 11 university students were allegedly beaten by police officers in December during a peaceful protest against the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline, and now face up to a year in prison, reports the Guardian.

More Top Climate News

Geothermal Energy is Picking Up Steam in U.S.: The Biden Administration will be allocating $60 million to three geothermal energy pilot projects, primarily focused on developing more advanced techniques to “create a human made underground reservoir to tap that heat for energy,” according to a statement released on Tuesday. One of the projects is Houston geothermal startup Fervo, which announced at a Stanford conference this week that it has been able to cut its drilling time by 70 percent, which could save costs and help scale up this energy source in the coming years, Matthew Zeitlin reports for Heatmap News

Tribes and Farmers Reach Tentative Agreement over Klamath River: For years, farmers and tribes have butted heads over water use from the Klamath River in northern California, which has been plagued by drought and seen minimal salmon populations. But it seems the groups have reached a truce for the time being, with both signing on to a Memorandum of Understanding to guide peaceful negotiations over water usage in the future, reports Jennifer Yachnin for E&E News. The agreement comes with a $72 million investment fund from the Biden administration for projects in the basin centered around restoration and more sustainable agriculture.  

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