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17 Critically Endangered Right Whales Died in 2017—The Time for Systemic Change Is Now

Animals
Starboard, a female right whale, died this summer after getting wrapped up in fishing gear. "Ropeless" crab and lobster traps could end entanglement deaths, experts say. NOAA / NEFSC / Peter Duley

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?

Bad Buoys

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.

Reality Check

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."

A North Atlantic right whale performs a whale of a headstand. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

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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By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

In 1997, Charles Moore was sailing a catamaran from Hawaii to California when he and his crew got stuck in windless waters in the North Pacific Ocean. As they motored along, searching for a breeze to fill their sails, Moore noticed that the ocean was speckled with "odd bits and flakes," as he describes it in his book, Plastic Ocean. It was plastic: drinking bottles, fishing nets, and countless pieces of broken-down objects.

"It wasn't an eureka moment … I didn't come across a mountain of trash," Moore told Mongabay. "But there was this feeling of unease that this material had got [as] far from human civilization as it possibly could."

Captain Charles Moore looking at a piece of floating plastic in the ocean. Algalita Marine Research and Education

Moore, credited as the person who discovered what's now known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, returned to the same spot two years later on a citizen science mission. When he and his crew collected water samples, they found that, along with larger "macroplastics," the seawater was swirling with tiny plastic particles: microplastics, which are defined as anything smaller than 5 millimeters but bigger than 1 micron, which is 1/1000th of a millimeter. Microplastics can form when larger pieces of plastics break down into small particles, or when tiny, microscopic fibers detach from polyester clothing or synthetic fishing gear. Other microplastics are deliberately manufactured, such as the tiny plastic beads in exfoliating cleaners.

"That's when we really had the eureka moment," Moore said. "When we pulled in that first trawl, which was outside of what we thought was going to be the center [of the gyre], and found it was full of plastic. Then we realized, 'Wow, this is a serious situation.'"

Captain Charles Moore holding up a jar of plastic-filled seawater from a research expedition in 2009. Algalita Marine Research and Education

Since Moore's discovery of the plastic-swirling gyres, there's been a growing amount of research to try and understand the scale of the plastic pollution issue, including several studies from 2020. This new research shows that there's actually a larger quantity of plastic in the ocean than previously thought, and that the plastic even enters the atmosphere and blows back onto land with the sea breeze. Recent studies also indicate that plastic is infiltrating our bodies through food and drinking water. The upshot is that plastic is ubiquitous in the ocean, air, food supply, and even in our own bodies. The new picture that is emerging, scientists say, is of a biosphere permeated with plastic particles right down to the very tissues of humans and other living things, with consequences both known and unknown for the lifeforms on our planet.

How Much Is Really in the Ocean?

In the past 70 years, virgin plastic production has increased 200-fold, and has grown at a rate of 4% each year since 2000, according to a 2017 study in Science Advances. Only a small portion of plastics are recycled, and about a third of all plastic waste ends up in nature, another study suggests.

While new research indicates that plastic is leaking into every part of the natural world, the ocean has long been a focal point of the plastic pollution issue. But how much is actually in the sea?

Moore says it's "virtually impossible" to get an accurate estimate because of the ongoing production of plastic, and the tendency for plastic to break down into microplastics.

"This count is constantly increasing, and it's increasing at a very rapid rate," he said. "It's a moving target."

One commonly cited study, for which Moore acted as a co-author, estimated that there are more than 5.25 trillion plastic pieces floating in the ocean, weighing more than 250,000 tons, based on water samples and visual surveys conducted on 24 expeditions in five subtropical gyres. But even at the time of publication in 2014, Moore said he knew "that was an underestimate."

A more recent study published this year, led by researchers at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, indicates that there's a lot more microplastic in the ocean than we previously thought. When taking samples from the ocean, most researchers use nets with a mesh size of 333 microns, which is small enough to catch microplastics, but big enough to avoid clogging. But the team from Plymouth Marine Laboratory used much finer 100-micron nets to sample the surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico and the English Channel.

"Our nets clogged too, so we used shorter trawls and a specialized technique for removing all the plankton — microscopic plants and biota — from the sample to reveal the microplastics," Matthew Cole, a marine ecologist at Plymouth Marine Laboratory and author of the study, told Mongabay in an email. "This process is quite time-consuming, so it'd be challenging for all samples collected to be treated this way."

The research team at Plymouth Marine Laboratory collecting water samples. Matthew Cole

The researchers found there were 2.5 to 10 times more microplastics in their samples compared to samples that used 333-micron nets.

"If this relationship held true throughout the global ocean, we can multiply existing global microplastic concentrations ascertained using 333-micron nets, to predict that globally there are 125 trillion plastics floating in the ocean," Cole said. "However, we know these plastics keep on degrading, and these smaller plastics would be missed by our smaller 100 micron net — so the true number will be far greater."

Another team of researchers delved down to the seafloor in the Tyrrhenian Sea in the Mediterranean to take sediment samples. They found that microplastic accumulated at depths of 600 to 900 meters (about 2,000 to 3,000 feet), and that certain spots in the ocean, termed "microplastic hotspots," could hold up to 1.9 million pieces per square meter — the highest level ever to be recorded on the seafloor. The results of this study were published in Science in June 2020.

"We were shocked by the sheer number of [microplastics]," Ian Kane, the study's lead author, told Mongabay in May. "1.9 million is enormous. Previous studies have documented much smaller numbers, and … just talked about plastic fragments, but it's fibers that are really the more insidious of the microplastics. These are the things that are more readily consumed and absorbed into organisms' flesh."

A water sample containing plastic. Algalita Marine Research and Education

While these studies shine light on the fact that there's definitely more plastic in the ocean than we think, it still doesn't complete the picture, says Steve Allen, a microplastic expert and doctoral candidate at the University of Strathclyde in the U.K. Large quantities of microplastics still appear to be "missing" from the ocean, he said. For instance, one study suggested that 99.8% of oceanic plastic sinks below the ocean surface layer, making it difficult to detect, but Allen says this doesn't fully explain what's happening to all of the plastic that enters the ocean.

"We're finding some of it," Allen told Mongabay. "But we're … trying to explain where the rest of it went."

Allen and his wife, fellow scientist Deonie Allen, also from the University of Strathclyde, have been working to find their answer, or at least part of it, in an unlikely place: up in the sky.

‘Microplastics Are in Our Air’

As the ocean churns and breaks waves, air is trapped in tiny bubbles. When those bubbles break at the sea's surface, water rushes to fill the void, and this causes tiny, micro-sized particles, like flecks of sea salt or bacteria, to burst into the atmosphere. A new study, published in PLOS ONE, suggests that microplastics are entering the air in the same way.

"[Bubbles] act a little bit like velcro," Deonie Allen told Mongabay. "Rather than the bubble going through the plastic soup and coming to the surface and not bringing any of the plastics with it, it actually collects [the plastic] and hangs on to it as it comes up. And when it bursts, the energy from the creation of the jet to fill the hole that's left in the sea … is what gives it the force to eject the plastic up into the atmosphere."

A lot of previous research on plastic pollution in the ocean has assumed that plastic remains in the seawater and sediment, or gets washed ashore. But this study takes a pioneering step to suggest that ocean plastic is entering the atmosphere through the sea breeze.

"This was just the next logical step to see whether what we're putting into the ocean was actually going to stay there, or whether it would come back," Steve Allen said.

A device used to collect air and mist samples to test for microplastics. Steve Allen

To obtain the necessary data for this study, the research team collected air and sea spray samples on the French Atlantic coast, both onshore and offshore. They found that there was a high potential for ocean microplastics to be released into the air, and suggested that each year, 136,000 tons of microplastics were blowing ashore across the world, although Steve Allen said this number was "extremely conservative."

This study specifically looked at microplastics, but the much smaller nanoplastics are likely going into air by the same means, according to the Allens. But detecting nanoplastics in the water or air can be challenging.

While this is the first study to look at the ocean as a source of atmospheric plastics, other research has examined the capacity of land-based plastics to leach into the air. One study, authored by the Allens and other researchers, found that microplastics were present in the air in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, even though the testing site was at least 90 kilometers (56 miles) from any land-based source of plastic, such as a landfill. This suggests that the wind can carry microplastics over long distances.

"We know that microplastics are in our air everywhere, from the looks of it," Deonie Allen said.

More research needs to be done to understand the implications of atmospheric microplastics on human health, but according to the Allens, it can't be good for us.

A "cloud catcher" used to collect data for research on microplastics in the atmosphere. Steve Allen

"Microplastics are really good at picking up the contaminants in the surrounding environment — phthalates, flame retardants, heavy metals," Deonie Allen said. "That will get released into the body, relatively effectively."

Enrique Ortiz, a Washington, D.C.-based ecologist and journalist who writes on the plastic pollution issue, says that this evidence should be a "wake up" call to humanity.

"The oceans are picking up the plastic that we throw in it, and that's what we're breathing," Ortiz told Mongabay "And that's the part that really … amazes me."

"But it's not just happening in coastal cities," he added. "No matter where you go, [even] in the middle of the Arctic … the human imprint is already there."

We're not just inhaling microplastics through the air we breathe — we're also getting it through the water we drink and the food we eat.

‘Our Life Is Plasticized’

Plastic waste isn't just leaking into the ocean; it's also polluting freshwater systems and even raining or snowing down from the sky after getting absorbed into the atmosphere, according to another study led by Steve and Deonie Allen. With microplastics being so ubiquitous, it should come as no surprise that they are also present in the food and water we drink.

Drinking water, including tap and bottled water, is the largest source of plastic in our diet, with the average person consuming about 1,769 tiny microplastic particles each week, according to a 2019 report supported by WWF. Other primary sources of microplastics include shellfish, beer and salt.

A new study published this year in Environmental Research found that microplastics were even present in common fruits and vegetables. Apples had one of the highest microplastic counts, with an average of 195,500 plastic particles per gram, while broccoli and carrots averaged more than 100,000 particles per gram.

"The possibility of plastics in our fruit and vegetables is extremely alarming," John Hocevar, ocean campaign director for Greenpeace USA, said in a statement. "This should prompt additional studies to assess how much plastic we are consuming through our produce each day and examine how it is impacting our health."

"Decades of plastic use have contaminated our air, water, and soil," Hocevar added. "Eating just a bite of an apple could now mean eating hundreds of thousands of bits of plastic at the same time."

Through normal water and food consumption, it's estimated that the average person consumes about 5 grams of plastic each week, equivalent to the size of a credit card, according to the WWF report.

"Plastic is everywhere," Thava Palanisami, a microplastics researcher at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and contributor to the WWF report, told Mongabay. "We live with plastic and our life is plasticized — that we know. But we don't know what it does to human health. That's the biggest question mark."

While it's not entirely clear how plastic affects human health, research suggests that the inhalation of fibrous microplastics can lead to respiratory tract inflammation. And another study, referenced in the WWF report, shows that fish and other marine animals with high concentrations of microplastics in their respiratory and digestive tracts have much higher mortality rates. Another study, published in 2020, indicates that plastic accumulates in the muscle tissue of fish.

"If you look at what happens, for example, in fish — it [plastic] stays in their muscles," Ortiz said. "It's scary. If you look at the numbers, you're eating something in the order of one kilo of plastic every three years. I wonder, in our lifetime … if a percentage of our weight will be plastic that is still in our muscles."

"The problem is serious," Palanisami said. "We've got to stop using unwanted plastic and manage plastic waste properly, and … work on new plastic alternates."

Stemming the Tide  

Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business at WWF, and leader of the organization's packaging and material science program, says the key to curbing the plastic pollution issue is making sure that plastic doesn't leak into nature in the first place.

"If you had a leaky faucet, would you bring out the mop first, or would you turn off the water?" Simon told Mongabay. "We're trying to stem that tide of plastic flowing into the ocean and into nature in general … but at the same time, trying to identify the different root causes of that leakage."

While Simon says there are various ways to try and stop plastic from entering the natural world, such as well-managed recycling and composting programs, she also said that large companies can play a critical role in helping to reduce plastic waste. WWF is currently spearheading a new program called ReSource, launched in 2019, that helps analyze companies' plastic footprints in order to work toward sustainable solutions. The program's website says 100 companies could prevent 50 million tons of plastic waste.

"We have three targets that we're looking at when we're partnering with companies," Simon said. "One, get rid of what you don't need. At the end of the day, we do need to reduce our demand for virgin nonrenewable plastic. Once you get rid of that, you think about the stuff that you do need — the things [for which] plastic is the right material choice. Where am I sourcing that from? Am I getting it from recycled content? Am I getting it from a sustainably-sourced bio base, or is it virgin non-renewable [plastic]? And then finally … how are you, as a company … making sure it comes back? Are you designing it in a way that it's technically recyclable into the places that it's ending up?"

Marine debris litters a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore. Susan White / USFWS

While recycled plastic may seem like a satisfactory alternative to virgin plastic, a new study, published in July 2020, showed that children's toys made out of recycled plastic contained high levels of toxic chemicals, comparable to levels found in hazardous waste.

Moore, who has been studying plastic pollution since his discovery of the floating debris in the North Pacific Ocean, says he doesn't believe there's an easy fix to this issue, especially when it comes to the businesses that are producing large amounts of plastic.

"There's no change that corporations can make under the current system that will successfully combat plastic pollution," Moore said. "There is no technical fix to the plastic problem. It's not in the corporate portfolio to reduce sales of your products — the corporate portfolio is about increasing sales. The idea that [corporations] can be convinced to reduce their production and sale of the products that they make is a fantasy."

However, Moore says a solution could be found in "radical change," and that this moment of time, with the Black Lives Matter movement spreading across the world, could provide the opportunity for that change.

"Now is the time when a world historical revolution would be possible, when the people of the world could unite to change the system as a whole," Moore said.

"There won't be a techno fix and science won't develop … a new product that will get us out of the problem of plastic pollution," he said. "It will only come with the world as a whole agreeing to charter a new course towards a non-polluting future."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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