With a furrowed brow, actor Sam Waterston stares directly into the camera. In his trademark rasp, the native New Englander invites viewers to help Oceana, the world’s biggest ocean conservation group, save the right whale from fishermen’s ropes and ship strikes.

In a 45-second video clip, the Academy Award-nominated actor best known for playing prosecutor Jack McCoy on “Law & Order” urges viewers to “act now before it’s too late.” He makes his case not in a dark courtroom, but on a windswept Massachusetts beach.

“Thousands of North Atlantic right whales used to swim along the East Coast of the United States and Canada,” Waterston says in the video Oceana produced to draw attention to a report it released Thursday about the threats facing the endangered species. “Only about 400 remain. Whaling decimated the species in the 1880s, and today, serious threats remain.”

At the mention of threats, the video cuts to a familiar Maine scene: four lobster boats hauling traps in a buoy-dotted cove. The footage was taken in Harpswell, but it could have been shot almost anywhere along Maine’s 3,500-mile coastline. It is a tourist’s seaside postcard, come to life.

But the somber piano soundtrack hints at the grim images to come, ones that Maine’s $485 million a year lobster industry has long feared: a montage of dead or dying whales. One lies beached on the sand, tangled up in fishing rope. Another trails rope behind it in the water.

“Collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear are killing these magnificent animals every year, and new threats continue to emerge,” Waterston says. “They could go extinct in your lifetime.”

Oceana’s report uses federal statistics to echo the concerns of other advocacy groups, like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Humane Society, but the ad breaks new ground – it targets the general public.

“Our role is to build much broader public awareness of what can be done right now to protect this really iconic species,” said Whitney Webber, campaign manager for Oceana. “This isn’t about finger-pointing or blame. It’s about all of us doing everything we can to protect this species. The public needs to know.”

The Maine lobster industry insists an ad campaign like this one, which it had not yet seen but had long expected, is untrue and unfair, a deliberate attempt to confuse the public. The industry wants the public to associate lobster with delicious shore dinners and sustainability, not dead whales.

That kind of bad press could hurt sales, but it would also cut deep for an industry that has always taken pride in its conservation ethic, where one generation of fishermen have taught the next to do what they must to protect the stock, like tossing breeding-aged females and oversized males back to spawn again.

The industry believes that conservation track record extends to its treatment of right whales. It already enacted whale protection measures that seem to work, they claim, and warming sea temperatures seem to have chased right whales out of Maine waters. Dead whales are not washing up in Maine lobster rope.

“The industry just wants to be treated fairly and not singled out as the sole cause of entanglement risk, because that is untrue,” said Patrice McCarron, director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. “There is not a lot of data to substantiate known risk from the Maine lobster fishery.”

Although it didn’t know the Oceana campaign was coming, the industry released its own online ad Wednesday night about all that it was doing to protect right whales on rightwhalesandmainelobster.com, a website organized by the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative.

“We are committed to helping the right whales,” Kristan Porter, a Cutler lobsterman and president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said in the two-minute spot, which features soaring drone footage of some of Maine’s most scenic lobster ports. “We just want to make sure that what we do actually helps.”

The ad featuring Waterston, who serves on Oceana’s board of directors, is timed to put pressure on the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is crafting a regulation to reduce entanglements due out in early 2020, and the lawmakers trying to exempt the New England lobster fishery from these regulations, Oceana’s Webber said.

Oceana wants regulatory agencies in both Canada and the U.S. to reduce the number of buoy lines in the water and reduce vessel speeds in places that right whales frequent, but doesn’t say how much. It wants U.S. regulators to close areas to fishing with rope or nets when right whales are spotted in the area.

It also wants to limit seismic testing and wind projects on the whale’s Florida-to-Canada migratory path.

Last month, Maine’s congressional delegation joined Gov. Janet Mills in criticizing a proposal that called on Maine to reduce lobster buoy lines by 50 percent. The proposal, which Maine fishermen helped write, was rushed, they argued, and based on flawed data provided by federal regulators.

Maine has pulled its support for the proposal, and, with industry support, is crafting an alternative.

On Wednesday, the National Marine Fisheries Service said it was disappointed in Maine’s withdrawal of support, but said it remained committed to working with Maine. It said it would consider Maine’s points, but it plans to move ahead developing its new whale regulation, with or without Maine’s support.

Federal regulators note that most entanglements, even the fatal ones, don’t have enough gear remaining to identify the place of entanglement, much less a fishery to blame. And location is not conclusive, either, as entangled whales can swim or float for hundreds of miles.

Oceana blames Maine lobstermen for some of that lack of evidence. Webber noted that much of Maine’s fishery is exempt from gear marking requirements, contributing to much of that uncertainty about who, or at least what fishery, is killing the right whales.

The Maine lobster industry has always gotten special treatment, she said. About 71 percent of Maine’s state waters are exempt from whale-safe regulations, Webber said. And Maine has never endured regional whale-related closures like those that now occur in Massachusetts waters.

“Maine has certainly had some perks that other places haven’t,” Webber said. “With these loopholes, it’s hard to make the claim that they know they’re not at fault. I’m not blaming them. But they can’t say ‘Hey, it’s not us, it’s not us, it’s not us,’ because we can’t know who is to blame. They’ve made sure of that.”

 

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