The North Atlantic right whale population crisis has made a big splash in media. We’ve been told that gear entanglements and ship strikes share culpability, that lobstering status quo is an existential threat to whale survival. The Endangered Species Act, meant to form the enforcement authority necessary to do anything and everything possible to protect a species at this precarious stage, was the point of attack to prod NOAA into calling for a “ropeless” environment. Since a ropeless environment may or may not help whales, a total lobstering moratorium has been issued as a threat to ensure compliance. To a whale, a rope is a rope, even if approved by NOAA for use in aquaculture.
However, proponents dealing the ropeless card use sleight of hand when directing your view toward its successful use in other fisheries as they boldly acknowledge the need for further development in the lobster fishery. The term “ghost gear,” a morbid buzzword not synonymous with “buoy lines,” adds innuendo to the spectre of a torturous death to the pitiable whale. Compared to a working man’s low-tech buoy line, an expensive ropeless trawl of traps would be fickle under rolling seas. Failing to deploy, they would add to entangled equipment graveyard growing on the bottom. Calm weather would not be trouble free, either, as lobstermen would not be able to see each other’s trawls and, despite honorable intentions, lobstermen might unknowingly lay gear over each other’s competitively located traps.
Strange, despite “can do-ism” to prevent injury to whales, you never hear how ghost gear, ropeless or otherwise, increases risk for injury among those who work on lobster boats. Lobstermen know well the additional manual handling forces needed to haul these flowering bouquets of damaged equipment. I learned from talking to hundreds of lobstermen, from Cutler to Cuttyhunk, about pain and injury, and then factoring what they said over the course of the time they worked, that lobstermen are injured at a rate several times more than general industry workers. It could be argued that no other industry on record has a higher rate of injury than lobstering.
If statistics lie, don’t let them distract from the real work environment. With peak risk for injury associated with entanglement, lobstering is repetitive, strenuous and often requires awkward postures exacerbated by wave motions, all with cumulative effect. More difficult to measure is the stress created by the tension between income based only on one’s effort without any guarantee of success and increasing limits on how that effort can remain under one’s own control.
Why do the words “work” and “environment” set off divergent alarms, regardless of whales? In the anything and everything world of work environment, the Endangered Species Ace might conflict with the National Standard 10 of the Magnuson Stevens Act, for starters. The standard states, basically, that fisheries regulations cannot be adopted if they increase risk to health and safety of fishermen. An increasingly cluttered ropeless ocean floor would be an ergonomic nightmare to the lobstering musculoskeletal system that is already beyond capacity.
The political history of “E” holds a deeper answer. At the birth of Environmental Protection Agency, the “E” in EPA was separated from working people with the presidential signature on the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In 1970, EPA and OSHA officially codified a century old American class distinction between well-funded, elitist impulses labeled conservationism, and the underclass’ insufferable interest in coming home from work alive and healthy, labeled uppity. The politically conservative Nixon could get away with these liberal acts because the billionaires had not yet perfected the inherent inequities of the current totalitarian media regime. Under Nixon, they faced an inchoate coalition of liberals and labor alienated by Vietnam, leaderless from political assassinations. His signature defined limits to their power. Two media legislative giveaways under Reagan and Clinton later, facts speaking to the potential for publicly coherent opposition to globally controlled messaging appears as a tangent to a story where lobstermen and scientists, who probably agree 95% of the time, are being played by the rulers of the game. Follow the money.
Even if blindness to the history of “E” ensures repeat, the reason for the declining whale population should be important to humans. Roughly 20 years ago, the species had given some cause for hope. The population had been on the increase. In 2010, that growth trend reversed direction. Recall, however, the number of traps per lobster permit has not changed over the years that spanned this growth trend reversal. The number of lobster permits has declined steadily since well before 2010. It’s illogical to think that, without an ecological increase in buoy lines, or perhaps a declining number of buoy lines, whales would entangle themselves more often in the same environment where they had increased their population before, unless they changed their behavior.
A recent scientific study concluded through statistical analysis that mortality of adult female right whales was the key variable in the alarming trend of the population growth, while “non-anthropogenic” changes only affect short-term differences in calving. The study discussed that female mortality was linked to the stress of entanglement, if not due to entanglement itself. The authors cited that while strong evidence of entanglements in mortality exists, evidence of any other environmental effect that could change a mortality trend was negligible. But more recently this year, another study, cited in the New York Times in May, found a change in the population of the whale’s main food source to be more than negligible. This change occurred, coincidentally, when the whale population growth dimmed, in 2010, suggesting a possible non-anthropogenic causality of whale decline simply unseen by the prior study. However, both studies are as overtly mute as plankton on the ecological effect of 200 million gallons of oil anthropogenically spilled into the Gulfstream by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil platform disaster. Silence enables neurologically damaged clean-up workers to be ignored, too.
Irving Oil has funded whale research. If whale research would find an oil spill and subsequent use of dispersant as a reason for a critical change in whale behavior, food source, and birthing rate, rather than an unchanging or declining number of buoy lines, it wouldn’t be a good investment. It’s not the truth that would be bad. It’s the potential exposure that the old alliance between oil industrialists and conservationism is the real harm to the environment and working people whose burden of suffering is the ecological prey of opioid manufacturers and traffickers willing to do anything and everything to capitalize on pain.
Scott Fulmer of Gloucester researched lobstering ergonomics during grant-funded work at UMass Lowell.