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The North Atlantic right whale is endangered. According to the latest IUCN report, this population has even been classified as critically endangered.
Unfortunately, this means that the causes of whale mortalities are beyond the whales’ ability to reproduce and survive. In the case of the right whale, almost all deaths are due to human activities. It is not easy to see this population of giants of the sea become extinct, and yes, it is sad.
Perhaps it’s because it hits us so hard that we feel the need to point the finger at the culprits. This even more true for the media, who rush to get answers, right away and without asking themselves the real questions. If we are too eager to know whose fault it is, we end up taking dangerous, even tendentious, shortcuts to find the culprits at all costs.
An example from my own experience a few weeks ago: After commenting on the release of a report on whale deaths in 2019, I was falsely told that I was “pointing out that one of the greatest dangers for whales is the wire that connects lobster or crab traps to a surface buoy.” I was commenting on a report that states that all right whale necropsies in 2019 reveal deaths caused by ship strikes, not entanglement in fishing gear.
As happens too often, the article in question used fishermen as easy targets for a gratuitous accusation under the circumstances. When a whale is hit by a shipping vessel, it either gets injured or dies. To observers, no matter how experienced they are, a whale with a fracture doesn’t look injured. If it doesn’t die, there is no way to blame the ships (and most of these big vessels don’t even notice if they hit a whale). If it does die, it will either sink to the bottom and never be found; or if it is found, it is only at a necropsy that we will see the clues that led to the conclusion that it died from a ship strike.
If we play the game of “Whose fault is it?”, only in this way will we be able to place the shipping vessels among the guilty parties.
In the dock are also the fishermen, for whom blame is almost automatic. When a whale interacts with fishing gear, it shows. Both the fisherman who loses his equipment and the observers can see either the remaining ropes or the scars they have left. A whale that survives an entanglement can automatically be identified as a victim of fishermen for several years, and the fishermen can be blamed. If the whale dies, again showing its marks, a necropsy may not even be necessary to once again blame the fishermen for its death.
For media that are in a hurry to get news out and take shortcuts, this disparity creates a serious problem: it is almost always the fishermen’s fault. Perhaps they are easier to blame because they are real people, not technical entities like vessels. We get a culprit faster.
The same goes for the recently released IUCN Critically Endangered Species publication. It presents the statistics for 2018, where it talks about a little over 400 remaining right whales — the same data that have been mentioned since 2017. It also mentions 250 mature individuals (again, this is not new information).
For some media, the “250 whales” was incorrectly used in the headlines as if it were a new estimate of the remaining population. If you look for scandals too much, you end up finding them (or making them up). Again, it’s the fishermen’s fault.
All the efforts made by fishers over the past two years to improve our chances of co-existing with the whales in the gulf have been too often ignored. By doing so, we are shooting ourselves in the foot, and that is not helping the whales at all.
In fact, since 2019 and despite the damning incident report, none of the whales found dead seem to be attributable to fishers. Following the 2020 snow crab fishing season, no entanglements or deaths have been reported.
On the fringes of this, hundreds are on the front lines, funding research and development of solutions, or risking their lives on whale rescue boats. Unfortunately, this is something that is not widely reported in the media.
The part of my message about whale conservation that is too often overlooked is that it is through collaboration that we can make a significant difference — change the course of things for whales. We don’t have a lot of time left, so we need to be all the more effective and work hand in hand, not against each other.
Instead of wondering whose fault it is, we should stay focused on solutions and hope to survive, to coexist, to be able to say “thanks to whom.”
Lyne Morissette is an ecologist specializing in ocean conservation, endangered species, marine mammals and ecosystem functioning. She is CEO of M - Expertise Marine and an associate professor at Institut des sciences de la mer de Rimouski. She is also scientific director of two ENGOs: Mission 100 Tonnes (a citizen action to remove 100 tonnes of trash from our watersheds) and EcoMaris (the only tall ship with an environmental vocation in eastern Canada). She is based in eastern Québec.