Last week, NOAA Fisheries held four hearings in coastal Maine asking for input on new federal regulations to protect the North Atlantic right whale.

At those hearings, we heard the stark realities facing the 411 remaining right whales. But that’s not the only important number.

Ninety-five.

That’s how many adult female right whales survive. There are more senators in Congress than that.

Twenty-eight.

From June 2017 to date, that’s how many dead right whales have been found in Canada and the U.S. And that’s not the full mortality count. It’s a big ocean, and we don’t find all the right whales killed by ship strikes and by fishing gear entanglements.

Twelve.

That’s how many right whale calves were born over the last three years.

The math is painfully simple. When deaths outnumber births, a species’ time runs out. Forever.

The right whale’s future is at a crossroads. What we do – or fail to do – in the coming months will turn its path toward extinction or toward recovery.

We also heard at last week’s hearings about the lobster industry’s concerns. We heard that lobstermen do not see right whales in Maine. Some suggested tagging whales to prove whether they use Maine waters.

We don’t doubt that most fishermen have never seen a right whale in Maine waters. Right whales are hard to spot and so rare that they are hard to count. Tagging seems reasonable, but the technology for long-term tags that don’t harm whales or risk infection from puncturing through blubber and muscle doesn’t exist.

But based on sightings reported to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we know that right whales use Maine waters. And where right whales and vertical fishing lines occur together, whales are at risk of entanglement. There are hundreds of thousands of lines throughout the right whale’s New England habitat, including Maine.

And we know – because their scars tell us – that most right whales have been entangled at least once. Many show scars of multiple entanglements. Although fishermen don’t intend to harm right whales, these accidental interactions are catastrophic.

Long-term entanglements saw through bones, amputate flippers and tails and cause starvation or infections so severe that death is the most humane outcome. Even short-term entanglements can compromise a female right whale’s health and greatly reduce her chances of calving.

This April, Maine’s Department of Marine Resources struck a deal for right whale conservation. The deal it helped broker was to allow four New England states, in consultation with their fishermen, figure out where and how to reduce lines to decrease risks to right whales. Maine has now walked away from this commitment.

This is more than a U.S. issue. We must hold both Canada and the U.S. accountable to save this transboundary species. Our groups have demanded that Canada take action to prevent right whale deaths. To its credit, it has acted quickly, but it has not yet done enough. We will continue to insist Canada do its fair share.

But this doesn’t let the U.S. – or its states – off the hook. In 2017, right whale experts proved that, since 2010, the right whale’s population has declined. Not all right whales migrate to Canadian waters. Many remain in the U.S. for part or all of the year. But in two years, the U.S. has not put a single new protective measure in place to halt this downward spiral.

We must work immediately to protect every remaining whale. But we need everyone to be involved. To start, fishermen, conservationists, scientists, regulators, politicians and concerned citizens must work harder to find constructive ways to communicate without talking past – or shouting at – each other.

There is no question that Maine can help forge a path toward a prosperous lobster industry co-existing with a recovering right whale population. We need the ingenuity and steadfastness of Mainers to develop innovative solutions that enable lobstermen and right whales – both iconic symbols of Maine – to thrive.

Ninety-five surviving females. Twenty-eight whales killed versus 12 calves born. It’s the right time – the only time – to save the right whale. We need to do the right thing. We need to do it now. And we need to do it together.


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