Underwater photo of humpback whale with line wrapped around tail flukes. Credit: Scott Benson, MMHSRP Permit 18786

Japanese Whaling Is Not the Greatest Threat to Whale Conservation

Global outrage should focus on North American fishing and shipping industries as well

In July, Japan resumed commercial whaling after a three-decade hiatus. Many Western nations and organizations condemned the move. Although I would personally prefer that no nation engage in commercial whaling, I find it hypocritical that many Americans and Canadians criticize the Japanese while turning a blind eye to the more pernicious practices of their own countries.

Japan has withdrawn from the International Whaling Commission, which banned commercial whaling in 1986. It now joins Norway and Iceland as the only countries that continue to harvest whales commercially. On the positive side, Japan has agreed to abide by the Antarctic Treaty, which regulates the commercial exploitation of living resources in the waters surrounding Antarctica, and has said that it will discontinue “scientific” whaling in the Southern Ocean. The nation also says it intends to only exploit species whose populations are in relatively good shape and to only do so in its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. Despite the international outcry, a properly managed whaling industry in Japan is unlikely to have a major impact on the world’s most threatened whale populations.

In contrast, let’s look at what is happening in North America. On the East Coast, neither Americans nor Canadians have been engaged in commercial whaling for decades, yet our fishing and shipping industries pose existential threats to one of the most highly endangered great whale species, the North Atlantic right whale.

Right whale females and their calves undertake a long seasonal migration each year from the protection of the South Atlantic Bight, where calving occurs, to the food-rich waters off New England and the Canadian Maritimes, where most feeding occurs. The two primary sources of death are entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes, and these occur most frequently at the northern end of the migration. Despite these dangers, the North Atlantic right whale population had been recovering gradually for the three decades leading up to 2010. Since then, however, an ocean heat wave has been relentlessly warming the Gulf of Maine and impaired feeding conditions there, causing right whales to abandon some of their traditional summer feeding grounds. Instead many of them are migrating even farther north during the summer in search of better feeding grounds in Canada’s Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

In the Gulf of Maine, some protections have been in place for years to reduce gear entanglement and ship strikes. Crustacean fisheries, mostly involving lobsters and crabs, pose the largest entanglement threat because of the many vertical lines that run throughout the water column—from traps on the bottom to buoys on the surface. Estimates indicate that up to 80 percent of right whales become entangled and potentially compromised at some point during their life. The Maine lobster industry is grudgingly considering a staged transition to breakaway and ropeless gear that could greatly reduce entanglements. With the added nutritional stresses imposed by climate warming, however, the aftereffects of entanglement are getting worse. The federal government must mandate a more rapid transition to breakaway and ropeless gear. Timing is critical: such a mandate could make the difference between the North Atlantic right whale’s eventual recovery and its extinction.

In Canadian waters, the whales’ plight has taken a drastic turn for the worse during the past three years. The Canadian fishing and shipping industries, as well as the federal government, were unprepared for the arrival of right whales looking for food. Without any protections in place during the summer of 2017, nearly 3 percent of the population was killed during a two-month period. Learning its lessons quickly, the government strongly regulated the fishing and shipping industries in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence during the summer of 2018—for example, by altering the dates of the snow crab fishing season and slowing down vessel speeds when right whales were present. No right whale mortalities occurred there during 2018. Unfortunately, because of a combination of overconfidence from that success and increasing pressure from the powerful fishing and shipping industries, the government became more complacent in its protection efforts during 2019. By the end of July, at least eight right whales had died in Canadian waters. At the current rate, the death toll in 2019 could exceed that of 2017.

The right whale story is not unique. In the Pacific Northwest, a near-decade-long ocean heat wave has induced the decline of Chinook salmon, which has suppressed reproduction of the highly endangered southern resident whale population in the Salish Sea. In response, Washington State governor Jay Inslee signed five bills in May offering unprecedented protections in his state’s waters. But a month later, after intense lobbying from the oil-and-gas industry, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau approved an expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which carries tar sands from Alberta to shipping ports in British Columbia. The expansion will lead to a sevenfold increase in tanker traffic through the Salish Sea, raising the risk of ship strikes, oil spills and noise in critical habitat for southern resident whales. The Canadian federal government’s approval came despite a determination from the country’s National Energy Board that the project would cause “significant adverse environmental effects” on the southern resident population. British Columbia, Washington State, and most First Nations and Native American tribes in the region oppose the pipeline expansion.

My point is this: The U.S. and Canada have the means to promote the conservation of highly endangered whales. For example, without the deaths caused by the fishing and shipping industries, the North Atlantic right whale population could potentially double in less than a quarter-century. But until the federal governments of those countries resist the pressures of industries to relax environmental regulations, Americans and Canadians should perhaps redirect some of their outrage away from the Japanese and toward the governments most threatening to whale conservation: their own.

Charles H. Greene is director of the Ocean Resources and Ecosystems Program at Cornell University.

See Scientific American article . . .