We Know How to Save These Beloved Endangered Whales. Yet We’re Mindlessly Killing Them.

Benji Jones / Vox

Two simple solutions would save the North Atlantic right whale. Why aren’t we using them?

The story of the North Atlantic right whale, an icon of the East Coast, should be one of hope — a tale of recovery.

Humanity’s strongest tools have been mobilized for their protection. For centuries, whalers hunted these graceful giants, which were once found throughout the North Atlantic, for their baleen and oily blubber. By the early 20th century, they were nearly extinct. But in 1935, alarmed by the shrinking number of right whales, international authorities banned commercial hunting of these animals. Decades later, as North Atlantic right whales were starting to recover, the US gave them another lifeline, listing them as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. That made killing or harming them a federal crime.

On paper, these whales were — and still are — highly protected. The US and Canadian governments also invest millions into their conservation, as do nonprofit environmental groups. Yet they continue to perish, often tragically.

Since summer 2017, more than 120 North Atlantic right whales have died, been seriously injured, or fallen sick, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Most recently, a whale was found dead off the coast of Virginia, NOAA reported on April 2. The whale was one of a small number of reproductive females and a mother of six. She is one of several whales that have already been found dead this year.

Now, officials estimate that there are only about 360 of these animals left, down from a historic population that was likely in the tens of thousands, making them one of the most endangered whale species on the planet. “North Atlantic right whales are approaching extinction,” NOAA has warned.

The problem is no longer whaling. What’s killing these animals today is certain fishing and shipping practices — and the people who enable them. Lines of rope attached to crab and lobster traps are ensnaring right whales, slowly digging into their bodies over months and even years, often until they die. Fishing boats and container ships, meanwhile, are accidentally ramming into the marine giants, which are known to cruise near the surface.

If you don’t fish or live near the East Coast, this may seem like a distant concern, one that can be comfortably ignored. Yet most Americans are implicated in the demise of these whales if they buy goods shipped in from overseas or eat lobster, Michael Moore, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told Vox. “The wants and needs of today’s consumers indirectly and unintentionally precipitate vessel strikes and entanglement of whales and are the ultimate cause of the death of these animals,” Moore, one of the nation’s foremost right whale experts, wrote in a recent paper.

The story of the right whale reveals a simple yet consequential flaw in modern environmental policies: They don’t work well when they run against consumerism and convenience, when they require industries and consumer behavior to change. It’s not that solutions to saving North Atlantic right whales don’t exist. They do — and as I’ll explain, they’re extremely simple. It’s that the economy in the US and elsewhere prioritizes cheap products over the lives and welfare of wild animals.

Why are so many of these whales dying?

The latest dead whale reported by NOAA is one victim of many. In January, a young female North Atlantic right whale — the only calf of a whale known as Squilla — washed up dead on Martha’s Vineyard. She was thin. Somewhat gruesome images show thick rope sticking out of a large wound near her tail. A preliminary necropsy showed “chronic entanglement,” and an analysis of the rope linked it to a fishery in Maine.

This case was bleak. The animal had been entangled for more than a year. But these circumstances are not uncommon. Entanglements are a leading cause of death for North Atlantic right whales, according to government authorities and independent scientists. Most of that rope likely comes from lobster and crab fisheries in Maine, eastern Canada, and elsewhere. Fishers commonly use lines attached to buoys to mark and retrieve baited traps, which essentially turn large swaths of the North Atlantic into minefields for whales.

Entanglement is an “utter nightmare” for these animals, as Moore, a veterinarian who’s examined more than 40 dead North Atlantic right whales, wrote in his 2021 book We Are All Whalers. Here’s how he explained it in the book:

Hitting a line makes them panic, and they tend to spin, trying to evade it, but instead they get multiple wraps of line around various body parts, such as the upper jaw, flippers, and tail. If they cannot disentangle themselves, the wraps constrict through time and slowly squeeze the life out of the animal over a matter of months.

More than 85 percent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, according to NOAA. And whales that die from entanglement are ensnared, on average, for six months, Moore’s older research shows. It’s hard to see this as anything other than brutal.

Short of killing the whales, chronic entanglement also makes it hard for these animals to feed (by gulping up large mouthfuls of plankton, which they filter through their baleen) and have babies. Wrapped around their bodies, rope not only stresses out the animals but causes drag, meaning whales expend more energy swimming, eating into valuable fat stores. North Atlantic right whales were once able to produce a calf every three years, Moore said, but now it happens just once every six or seven years, on average.

The other major problem for these animals is fast-moving and abundant boats.

North Atlantic right whales are slow swimmers that spend much of their time cruising at the ocean’s surface, where they catch their breath and socialize, making them especially vulnerable to strikes. These events, like entanglement, are not uncommon. In February, for example, a young female right whale, shown above, was found dead near Savannah, Georgia. She had a fractured skull, experts determined, which was consistent with a vessel strike. More than a dozen North Atlantic right whales have died from similar collisions in the last five years.

The GIF below shows all of the ships (blue dots) that a single whale (red dot) has to contend with. Even small boats — such as sportfishing vessels, which take people fishing recreationally, or research ships — can cause serious injuries or death.

The noise produced by ships can also be a problem. It likely makes it harder for whales to communicate with each other, though it’s not clear what that means for their long-term survival.

There are clear solutions, yet the US has failed to implement them

What the experts I spoke to find especially frustrating is that much of this problem could be solved if fishers had the right incentives and support. “We know exactly what we have to do,” Moore said. “The science is all there.”

Take, for example, entanglement. The fishing industry has the technology to catch lobsters and crabs without rope hanging in the water column. Various forms of ropeless gear, also known as on-demand technology, allow fishing boats to find and retrieve pots wirelessly — meaning they don’t need a buoyed line, visible from the sea surface, to find their catch and reel it in.

A small number of fishers have started using these ropeless systems. Others are resisting change, for many reasons. On-demand gear is likely less reliable compared to traps made of rope and metal; more parts can fail. There are also concerns related to visibility. If there are no surface buoys to mark a trap, bottom trawlers might have a harder time avoiding them. “I think the fear is it would create more problems amongst each other just fishing,” Dave Casoni, a longtime lobster fisher, told NPR’s Lauren Sommer. “It’s a very busy, dangerous operation to begin with, and we don’t need to add that.”

Ropeless gear also raises the cost of lobstering — the devices themselves are expensive, and these systems can slow down the speed of trapping.

Yet these challenges are very much solveable. NOAA is currently testing on-demand gear to iron out the technical issues. Plus, the government has allocated millions of dollars to these technologies and currently lends them out for free to fishers. The longer-term goal, NOAA told Vox, is “to expand capacity to support all fishermen wishing to trial on-demand gear and, eventually, an experimental fishery encompassing many more participants.” What that ultimately means for the costs assumed by fishers — and the costs passed down to consumers — is not yet clear.

“If the motivation is there, the dollars will be too,” Moore said.

Perhaps a bigger issue, Moore said, is shifting the deeply ingrained culture of the lobster industry in Maine toward a new way of doing things. Contributing to this tension: The industry has long downplayed its role in killing whales, obscuring who ultimately feels responsible. After NOAA linked the dead right whale to the Maine fishery earlier this year, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association said that “entanglement in Maine gear is extremely rare.” The group, which advocates for the state’s lobster fishers, added that it “remains committed to finding a solution to ensure a future for right whales and Maine’s lobster fishery.” Moore says the risk of entanglement in these waters is significant, but until recently, it was challenging to trace gear back to Maine fisheries.

Efforts to address ship strikes have been similarly sluggish. Once again, the solution is, at least on the surface, painfully clear: slow boats down.

For more than a decade, NOAA has required that ships longer than 65 feet reduce their speed to 10 knots (about 11.5 mph) in certain areas along the East Coast and at certain times of year to avoid whales. The agency also urges boats to avoid or slow down in areas where a handful of North Atlantic right whales have been detected. Yet these rules are grossly inadequate, said Erica Fuller, an attorney at Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental group that advocates for whale conservation. A key problem, she said, is that “young animals continue to be killed by and seriously injured by boats that are smaller than 65 feet.” Plus, compliance with the current regulations is weak.

In 2022, NOAA proposed new speed regulations that would apply to much smaller boats and a much larger area of the ocean. These rules are an improvement, Fuller said, though she’s frustrated by how long it’s taking the government to adopt regulations that it knows are necessary. (Some special-interest groups, like the American Sportfishing Association, strongly oppose these changes. They have also questioned whether smaller boats are really harming whales.)

The true cost of consumer goods

Protecting wild animals or ecosystems often requires giving something up. Stop hunting American alligators to save the American alligator. Don’t clear-cut old-growth forests to safeguard the northern spotted owl.

This is not the case with North Atlantic right whales. We can save these animals and still eat lobster, and still get foreign-made goods at Walmart, and still go sportfishing. With technology like on-demand fishing gear, “you keep the fisherman fishing, and you can keep the whales swimming, entanglement-free,” said Erin Meyer-Gutbrod, an ocean scientist and right whale expert at the University of South Carolina.

Fishing without rope and driving boats more slowly may make some of the products we love more expensive. But what are those extra dollars worth to us? Would you pay more for lobster if it meant that whales would suffer less? What if it meant saving a species from extinction? Maybe paying for food fished from the sea, from ecosystems that the US is trying to protect, should cost more. And it’s consumers who should be paying the difference, not fishers.

“Where the rubber hits the road is in the politics of and the expectations of voters,” Moore said. “What matters to them is dinner on the table, kids in college, houses warm, clothes to wear, Christmas presents to give — none of that includes anything about biodiversity or right whales.”

In many ways, saving the North Atlantic right whale should be easy. These animals are charismatic and intelligent. People love to see them. We love whales! Most important of all, we know what’s killing them and what to do about it. But so far, that’s not enough. Ensuring the survival of these animals will ultimately require a change in our economy and in our personal behavior. Every consumer has a part to play in this reckoning: Pay the true cost.