17 Critically Endangered Right Whales Died in 2017—The Time for Systemic Change Is Now
By Allison Guy
Centuries ago, naturalists believed that the animals of the sea mirrored the animals of the land. Elephants were matched by sea-elephants, chickens by sea-chickens. The clergy even got paired with sea-bishops and sea-monks. In 2017, land and sea mirrored each other in a less literal way. As humanity reeled from hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and shootings, a rare whale endured its own year of horrors.
At least 17 North Atlantic right whales died in 2017—the species' worst year since hunting them was banned in 1937. There are around 450 whales left, and just 100 breeding females, which are bearing calves at the glacial pace of one every nine years.
The whales' plight has not gone unnoticed. A host of regulations in the U.S. and Canada curtail the two biggest whale-killers around: collisions with boats, and entanglements in fishing gear. But as 2017 laid bare, these rules aren't enough. In December, officials at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced the 16-meter (50-foot) giants could be functionally extinct in as little as 20 years.
North Atlantic right whale calves are a rare sight these days. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
But as North Atlantic right whales wither, ocean advocates say the resolve to protect them has solidified. "People are really trying to work together: internationally, between Canada and the U.S.; between scientists; between lobstermen; between state and federal governments," said Ingrid Biedron, a whale biologist at Boston University. "Everybody wants to save the right whale."
And there's one intervention, experts agree, that could decide the whales' fate: a new breed of crab and lobster fishing gear that eliminates dangerous, whale-snagging rope. Ropeless gear already exists, but almost no one uses it. The big question is: Do we have the time and money to make the shift before some future year becomes the whales' last?
North Atlantic right whales summer from Cape Cod up to Newfoundland, where they feed on swarms of fatty plankton called copepods. The murky seabed in these regions also swarms with millions of crab and lobster pots. Conga lines of traps are linked together in sets, and each set is marked with a buoy on 2,000 to 3,000 feet of vertical line.
For big whales, these dangling ropes turn fishing grounds into minefields. "You're watching these humpbacks just literally smacking into gear constantly," recalled Richard Riels, an engineer developing rope-free crab pots. "You realize it's only a matter of time for these animals to get entangled, because it's almost impossible to not."
At 70 tons, North Atlantic right whales are so strong they can drag hundreds of pounds of rope and traps for days, months or years. The lines wrap around the whale's jaws, preventing them from eating or saw through their fins and blubber. Entangled whales eventually succumb to starvation, exhaustion or infection.
Since 2010, entanglements have been responsible for 85 percent of all North Atlantic right whale deaths. More than 80 percent of all whales bear entanglement scars, and many have been wrapped up multiple times, leading to long-term health problems that hinder their ability to reproduce and fend off disease.
A rescue crew races towards an entangled right whale. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Two to Tangle
Right now, there are two ways we deal with tangled-up whales. The first option sends rescue crews out on inflatable craft to manually cut away the rope. It works, but only about 60 percent of the time, said Michael Moore, the director of the Marine Mammal Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. It's also expensive and dangerous. Last summer, Joe Howlett, a Canadian fisherman and disentanglement veteran, died after being struck by a right whale's tail while on a rescue trip.
The other option is adjusting existing fishing gear. Many lobstermen now use sinking lines for trap-to-trap connections underwater, which eliminates floating arcs of rope that snag diving whales. "Weak links" have also been installed in lines, under the assumption that the whales are strong enough to snap them. But there's a problem, Moore said. "All of the tweaking that has been going on has failed to reduce the risk of entanglement mortality." In fact, deaths and injuries have only gotten worse as high-tech fishing lines have gotten stronger.
For a right whale, Moore said, "once it's entangled, it's too late."
Hope on a Rope
For researchers, there's only one workable solution: Get rid of the ropes for good. "It's the only certain method we can imagine that would completely eliminate deadly entanglement," said Timothy Werner, director of the Consortium for Wildlife Bycatch Reduction.
For crab and lobster fishermen, buoys serve two roles. First, they mark the location of the traps, which ensures that no one else accidentally dumps their gear in the same spot. They're also currently required by law. Second, ultra-strong buoy ropes are how fishermen haul those conga-lines of traps to the surface.
In ropeless versions of crab and lobster gear, a spool or tether closely hugs the buoy to the traps as they rest on the seafloor. The buoy only rises to the surface once a timer releases it, or, in pricier designs, once the fisherman pings the device with an acoustic signal. Richard Reils, the engineer, has repurposed inflatable bags from salvage diving to haul the entire trap to the surface, no buoy required.
Investigators examine a right whale carcass found wrapped in rope. International Fund for Animal Welfare
These innovations would not only all but eliminate whale entanglement, they could make fishing safer for lobstermen and crabbers. Ropes can snag humans too, and yank them overboard. Ropeless gear might also slash the tens of thousands of traps that lost each year when surface buoys break free of their lines. Lost traps continue "ghost fishing" once the initial catch of crabs or lobster dies, their bodies becoming bait for the next round of animals—a wasteful and destructive cycle.
Working ropeless systems already exist, Werner said. Lobstermen in Australia use their own versions of line-free gear. But there are stubborn barriers to the technology's adoption in the U.S. and Canada.
One of the big problems is that fishermen simply aren't familiar with it, Werner explained. Lobster and crab pots have remained more-or-less unchanged for centuries. "The most important thing," Werner said, is to let fishermen who work in the whales' habitat test ropeless gear. "Until they can get their hands on it and see how it works, and how it might be viable, it just sounds too much like fiction to them."
The other roadblock is cost. For Werner, it's up to governments to provide financial incentives: buying back old gear, or opening up closed whale habitat to lobstermen and crabbers using ropeless systems. Private funding might also be an option, said Biedron, the Boston University biologist, as offshore industries have previously financed whale-protection programs to offset the effects of their work.
There's no predicting when ropeless gear could wind up where it's needed, Moore said. But he noted that momentum seems to be building: "Unlike previous years, it seems like there's a lot more widespread acknowledgement that this needs to be among the solutions that we advance." If a coordinated effort "pulls out all the stops," he said, "then within a few years we can imagine several fisheries using some of these technologies, and then build up from there."
A few years may be all that North Atlantic right whales have left. Moira Brown, a Canadian right whale expert at the New England Aquarium, cautioned that there's no time to waste. She explained that the Gulf of California's vaquita, a tiny porpoise that numbered in the hundreds just 20 years ago, is now down to 30. "The vaquita is a reality check," she said. "It's a call to action."
Stopping North Atlantic right whale extinction may not just be a task for engineers and scientists, but a test of our values. "It's a huge challenge for us, as a society and a community, to buck up and be responsible," Riels said. "We all want our fish; we all want to go fishing. But we don't realize that at the end of the day, there's an animal that lives out there, and we're in the middle of all its living area, and we're really affecting it. This problem is way bigger than all of us."
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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