Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Lobster Industry Ensnared in North Atlantic Right Whale Deaths

Animals
A gloved hand pulls a lobster from a tank. WoodysPhotos

By Sam Schipani

Last year was not a good one for the North Atlantic right whale. Seventeen of them were discovered to have died, about 4 percent of a total population of 455. Numbers have been low for decades—the species was declared endangered in 1973—but if the current trend continues, the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, could go extinct by 2040.


In response, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the American Humane Society are suing the U.S. Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). According to the complaint filed on Jan. 18, entanglements from lobster trap lines and other commercial fishing gear unduly jeopardize the dwindling whale populations and breach the species' right to protection under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The lobster industry has long been implicated in North Atlantic right whale mortality. Passing whales can easily become entangled in lobster fishing gear—and when they do, their deaths can be slow, painful and gruesome. The heavy fishing line, which is often still connected to the clunky lobster traps, can wrap around a whale's head, mouth, flippers, or tail. Entangled whales either drown, unable to surface for air, or the remaining line impedes their feeding and reproduction while causing festering infections. Entanglements have been responsible for 85 percent of all North Atlantic right whale deaths since 2010. Now, climate change is making matters worse.

The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water on the planet. Lobster populations have migrated north to warmer waters, resulting in catches that are more lucrative in Maine than in other areas of the Atlantic. Maine's lobster industry is booming—the state currently catches more than 80 percent of all lobsters caught in the U.S. This means that lobstermen are setting more traps just as more North Atlantic right whales are showing up, following the warmer waters north to feed. The shifting habitats and increase in fishing has led to a "perfect storm of mortalities of right whales," said Richard Pace, a large-whale researcher at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center. In 2016, Maine set a record when the state harvested more than 130 million pounds of crustaceans. With the global appetite for lobster steadily increasing, the question of how the lobster industry can help prevent whale deaths is ever more pressing.

"The right whale situation has really become a crisis," said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is now the number one cause of the species' critically endangered status, and the federal government needs to do everything in its power if we're going to save these amazing animals from going extinct."

North Atlantic right whales are not just majestic; they also play an important role in marine ecosystems. They help to support the production of plankton, which is the very base of the food web and gives us half the oxygen we breathe. Whales also help sustain fish stock and cycle nutrients throughout the marine food web.

"[The North Atlantic right whale] is a unique species. It is only found along the East Coast of the U.S. and Canada. It doesn't live anywhere else in the world," commented Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. "If we not only have an obligation to protect them, we should selfishly want to protect them because we need them."

Historically, Maine's lobster industry has managed lobster populations sustainably. That, plus lobster populations scuttling northward, has likely contributed to its success compared to other American lobster fisheries. A report by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute details how Maine lobstermen achieved record hauls with a decades-old conservation strategy. They only use traps—no dragging or diving allowed—and the traps must have slats for juvenile lobsters and biodegradable hatches to release lobsters if the trap is lost. Large, egg-carrying females are returned to the sea marked with a "v notch" in their tail to signal to other lobstermen that the lobster is off limits.

But when it comes to whales, Maine's lobster industry is subject to less regulation than other parts of the northeastern coast. About 71 percent of Maine's waters are exempt from NOAA Fisheries' Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan—which requires modifications like marking gear and sink rope to reduce the industry's impact on whales—under the rationale that whales are not present in the exempted areas, such as bays, harbors and inlets.

The federal government has been grappling with how to regulate the industry to prevent whale deaths for almost a decade. In 2009, legislation required lobstermen to replace all floating rope on groundlines with sinking rope, which is less likely to entangle whales. In 2015, a new federal rule went into effect requiring lobstermen to use up to 15 traps with each buoy when fishing beyond designated exemption lines off Maine's coast. The legislation was designed to reduce the number of vertical lines in the water column and, thus, reduce the chance that whales would get entangled.

The regulations immediately drew ire from lobstermen across the state. "The prohibition on float rope has increased the cost of business for Maine's lobster industry, which is already subject to increasing costs of fuel and bait," said Jeff Nichols, communications director at the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "Sink rope has been shown to wear out much faster than float rope, which results in the need to replace the rope more often and has led to more gear loss because sink rope has been shown to get caught on the rocky bottom and break."

Worse still, the sinking rope and vertical line legislation didn't prevent whale deaths. In 2016, researchers from the New England Aquarium, Woods Hole and other institutions released a paper concluding that there is no evidence that current fishing regulations have been effective at reducing mortality in whales. Becky Bartovics, executive committee member at the Sierra Club's Maine Chapter, cited a lack of both proper science and consultation of local knowledge as the cause of the legislative blunder. "I'm sure the intention was to reduce the number of lines going to the bottom, but 15 traps weigh a lot." That weight, if entangled with a whale, will certainly kill the animal—and it puts stress on the fishermen, too.

In light of these ineffective attempts to address whale mortality, local lobstermen and conservationists alike are wary of new legislation. "Many times the scientists have come up with a solution without working with the lobstermen," Bartovics said. "That's why the lobstermen are frustrated." The lobster community in Maine has been open to other solutions. A 2014 study showed that red and orange ropes are more visible to right whales and could reduce entanglements; according to Bartovics, some lobstermen have started spraying red paint on their ropes to do just that.

The lawsuit filed in January aims to hold fisheries accountable for North Atlantic right whales' deaths and, ultimately, put more mitigation efforts in place

"The long-term goal is to figure this out across fisheries and across species. The goal is not to shut down fisheries," Asmutis-Silvia said. "There are no bad guys here. We need to work together to figure out a solution."

Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Supporters cheer before Trump arrives for a rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, OK. Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Monday and Tuesday of the week that President Donald Trump held his first rally since March in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the county reported 76 and 96 new coronavirus cases respectively, according to POLITICO. This week, the county broke its new case record Monday with 261 cases and reported a further 206 cases on Tuesday. Now, Tulsa's top public health official thinks the rally and counterprotest "likely contributed" to the surge.

Read More Show Less
In the tropics, farmers often slash and burn forests to clear fertile land for crops, but a new method avoids that technique. Inga Foundation video

Rainforests are an important defense against climate change because they absorb carbon. But many are being destroyed on a massive scale.

Read More Show Less
A truck spreads lime on a meadow to increase the soil's fertility in Yorkshire Dales, UK. Farm Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As we look for advanced technology to replace our dependence on fossil fuels and to rid the oceans of plastic, one solution to the climate crisis might simply be found in rocks. New research found that dispersing rock dust over farmland could suck billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year, according to the first detailed large scale analysis of the technique, as The Guardian reported.

Read More Show Less
Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning. Pxfuel

By Tim Radford

German scientists now know why so many fish are so vulnerable to ever-warming oceans. Global heating imposes a harsh cost at the most critical time of all: the moment of spawning.

Read More Show Less
Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Niq Steele / Getty Images

By Sherry H-Y. Chou, Aarti Sarwal and Neha S. Dangayach

The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

When a neurologist examined him, Tom was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes abnormal sensation and weakness due to delays in sending signals through the nerves. Usually reversible, in severe cases it can cause prolonged paralysis involving breathing muscles, require ventilator support and sometimes leave permanent neurological deficits. Early recognition by expert neurologists is key to proper treatment.

We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

Some patients may not seek timely medical care for neurological symptoms like prolonged headache, vision loss and new muscle weakness due to fear of getting exposed to virus in the emergency setting. People need to know that medical facilities have taken full precautions to protect patients. Seeking timely medical evaluation for neurological symptoms can help treat many of these diseases.

What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

It is certainly possible that there are other cases that have not been reported. The Global Consortium Study of Neurological Dysfunctions in COVID-19 is actively underway to find out how often neurological problems like Guillain-Barre Syndrome is seen in hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Also, just because Guillain-Barre Syndrome occurs in a patient diagnosed with COVID-19, that does not imply that it was caused by the virus; this still may be a coincident occurrence. More research is needed to understand how the two events are related.

Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


Nurses wear PPE prior to caring for a COVID-19 patient in the ICU at Sharp Grossmont Hospital on May 5, 2020 in La Mesa, California. Mario Tama / Getty Images

One of the initial reasons social distancing guidelines were put in place was to allow the healthcare system to adapt to a surge in patients since there was a critical shortage of beds, ventilators and personal protective equipment. In fact, masks that were designed for single-use were reused for an entire week in some hospitals.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders greet each other with a safe elbow bump before the start of the Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020. Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.