PETA sign at Jetport

A traveler arriving Thursday at Portland International Jetport walks past a new PETA sign that is upsetting some Mainers, including those who depend on fishing for their livelihoods. Kelley Bouchard/Staff Writer

Responding to backlash, the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals on Monday defended its ads at Portland International Jetport that tell travelers to “Save the whales: Don’t eat fish.”

Among those critical of the signs, which depict whales in gill nets, was Gov. Janet Mills, who sent a letter Friday to jetport officials asking that the ads be removed, and state Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Deer Isle, who tweeted Thursday that the ads are grossly misinformed.

“@portlandjetport services a city that considers itself the quintessential Maine brand and a food mecca,” McDonald tweeted. “This sign is appalling in its inaccuracy and absurdity. Do better. Don’t take money from advertisers who are eager to openly illustrate their ignorance. #EatMaineSeafood.”

McDonald represents islands and coastal towns with strong fishing communities including the Cranberry isles, Vinalhaven and Swan’s Island. She also serves on the Maine Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee.

PETA President Ingrid Newkirk sent letters to both Mills and McDonald asking them to “consider the suffering that fish and other marine animals endure when slaughtered for food,” and expressing the hope that “instead of backing this outdated industry, you’ll support the vegan businesses in your state.”

She argued that veganism is on the rise, pointing to a 300 percent increase in people going vegan over the past 15 years, and noted that Maine, which has “many thousands” of PETA members across the state, ranks third in the country for prevalence of vegan options and all-vegan restaurants.


“Our previous offer stands to retrain any Mainers who want to quit the cruel, ugly fishing business and pursue a nonviolent occupation such as photography or gardening,” Newkirk wrote.

The letter also repeated the ad’s claim that “fishing gear kills 300,000 whales and dolphins annually,” which many have criticized as inaccurate and misleading.

The figure has been repeated by many environmental groups without attribution. When asked for the source, a PETA spokesperson responded with a link to a Sky News article about a map of whale migration patterns by British conservation group WWF-UK. Neither the article nor the WWF-UK website cited a source for the figure.

A spokesperson for WWF-UK pointed to publications of the International Whaling Commission, an intergovernmental body established in 1946 by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. A spokesperson for the commission said Tuesday that the figure comes from a report published in the journal Conservation Biology in 2006.

The report’s authors, Andrew Read and Phoebe Drinker of the Marine Laboratory of Duke University and Simon Northridge of the Sea Mammal Research Unit at St. Andrews University in the United Kingdom, wrote that they aimed to derive “a crude first estimate of marine mammal bycatch (animals caught by accident) in the world’s fisheries.”

They did this by extrapolating U.S. bycatch data using the ratio of U.S. vessels to the global fleet for different fishing methods.


Using data on death and serious injury of marine mammals through bycatch from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1990 to 1994, they calculated a yearly average of roughly 3,000 cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), of which dolphins and porpoises constituted the vast majority. The average annual bycatch of large whales over the period was only 20, plus or minus three, the report stated, or only 0.66 percent of the U.S. cetacean bycatch.

Extrapolation yielded a global average bycatch of 307,753 cetaceans, the source of the ad’s 300,000 figure. Gill net bycatch constituted 84 percent of all cetacean bycatch, they found.

Facebook user Jason Philbrook, in a post about the ads, said counting whales and dolphins together is deceptive.

“It’s sort of like saying I’ve killed 300,000 people and ants (with a crime scene photo), when I’ve killed 0 people and 300,000 ants,” Philbrook’s post reads.

But whether or not the ad is misleading, Newkirk noted that the stakes are extremely high for critically endangered North Atlantic right whales. Current estimates suggest that there are fewer than 350 right whales left, and fewer than 100 are breeding females.

“According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, if we want the population to recover, we must reduce human-caused deaths to an average of less than one per year, but the agency estimates that the number of observed deaths and serious injuries caused by entanglements with fishing gear is at least five each year,” Newkirk wrote. “The actual number is no doubt higher.”

In a news release, she characterized the governor’s letter calling for the ads to be removed as an attack on free speech.

A spokesperson for the city of Portland, which owns the jetport, said Monday that the city has received the governor’s letter and was reviewing it, but had no comment. She said the ads are scheduled to come down Saturday.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.