Originally published in Castine Patriot, September 12, 2019
Right whales, Calvineers and lobstermen
Castine teacher, students advocate for endangered species (whales, not lobstermen)
The Calvineers, an after-school seventh and eighth grade club at Adams School in Castine, researches and advocates for right whales. In front is Max Egan; middle row, from left, are Hazel Sheahn, Charlotte Griffith, Amelia Jackson, Charlie Parker and Jack Cukierski; back, from left, is teacher Jen Jackson, Caitlin Tobey, Quinn Jackson, Logan Spratt, Thiago Barrett-Pereira, Erik Davis and Bill McWeeny.
by Anne Berleant
With the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposing a rule to cut vertical lobster trap lines by 50 percent or more to prevent entanglements with North Atlantic right whales, Maine lobstermen are asking for evidence that the whales are still swimming in the Gulf of Maine as its temperature increases.
The North Atlantic right whale has been a federally endangered species since 1970, and a rise in fatalities is behind the proposed rule.
NOAA tracks data on right whales in areas where they congregate, such as off Nantucket and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence River, but their lower numbers in the Gulf of Maine make it too expensive a proposition, NOAA officials said at an August public meeting in Ellsworth.
But while local lobstermen have publicly proclaimed to never have seen a whale in Maine, marine scientist, Castine science teacher, and Brooksville resident Bill McWeeny sighted right whales in Lubec two weeks ago before they moved on to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
“Why do you think there aren’t whales just because you haven’t seen them?” he asked. “There are right whales out there. It’s just hard to find them.”
McWeeny serves on the advisory board of Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, which has supported right whale survey research in the Bay of Fundy “because traditionally it’s a great place for whales.”
But as copepods, the plankton that is the primary food source for right whales, migrate from or fail to mature in warming ocean waters, the whales migrate to feeding grounds in colder waters.
NOAA may be aiming for lobstermen to reduce their trap lines but the ropes are not the only danger to right whales. Ship strikes, whether from container or cruise ships, also kill right whales, but protected areas where right whales are known to congregate, such as Charleston, North Carolina, New York City, Boston and Jacksonville, Fla., enacted in 2008, have helped, McWeeny said. Lobstermen changing to a 1,700-pound rope that right whales can break free from will help, too.
“It’s doable, it’s been done by Massachusetts fishermen,” he said. “It’s not giving them problems and the cost is minimal.”
But he also thinks exemptions should be made for smaller boats on the coast, especially if the line reduction is made by adding more traps per string.
“People who fish singles should not have to double up if they’re within the coast,” he suggested. “Out to three miles, I do think, in addition to 1,700-pound rope, to lessen the amount of lines. The devil’s in the details.”
Using Calvin to teach marine science
Calvin, a North Atlantic right whale, was born in 1992 and orphaned at eight months old when her mother was killed by a ship strike. She is also the namesake of the Calvineers, a group of seventh and eighth grade Castine students who research and present on right whales, under McWeeny’s guidance.
This year, the club is particularly strong, McWeeny said. “They’re really good and really into it,” he said.
Apart from fundraising $50,000 to attend the 2019 World Marine Mammal Science Conference in Barcelona this December, they also are writing to their representatives in Washington, D.C.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people are not happy with these new [proposed] rules,” eighth grader Charlotte Griffith wrote in a second letter to Sen. Angus King she is preparing to send. “They think that the rules will put them out of business and don’t think that their traps and end lines are affecting the whales. We are not trying to put people out of business. We understand their concerns…but most likely they won’t. Fishermen in Massachusetts are using similar rules and are still catching fish and making money.”
The Calvineers are also writing their legislators on the SAVE Right Whale Act, “a proposed bill that would give grants to lots of scientists, fishermen and inventors to help them with their research and development,” eighth grader Hazel Sheahan wrote to her representatives in Congress. “The Act would also fund the tracking of plankton which are the right whale’s main source of food. This act is very important for the right whales….The only way the whales can be saved is by the people who are accidentally killing them.”