Right whale, shark, vaquita activists to fishing industry: “We are not enemies, we are friends”

Representatives of two non-governmental organizations working to protect the North American right whale, vaquita, and endangered sharks from further population declines caused by fishing are said they want to work in concert with the industry to bring about positive change.

Representatives of two non-governmental organizations working to protect the North American right whale, vaquita, and endangered sharks from further population declines caused by fishing are saying they want to work in concert with the industry to bring about positive change.

AWI Marine Wildlife Consultant Kate O’Connell and Sharkproject Head of International Cooperation Iris Ziegler told SeafoodSource their goal is not to shut down commercial fishing activity, but rather to work together with the industry to find solutions that will preserve species that are currently on the path toward extinction.

AWI has worked with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council to push for both legislative and administrative actions to protect the vaquita and the North Atlantic right whale. Scientists estimate there are fewer than 10 vaquita – a small porpoise native to the northern Gulf of California – remaining in existence, though the Mexican government recently detected an unidentified number of vaquita via acoustic listening devices. And with fewer than 350 North American right whales remaining, AWI has made a push to get the commercial fisheries in the Gulf of Maine to change their practices to prevent potential further harm to the population.

The groups have filed numerous lawsuits against the U.S. government to protect endangered cetaceans, several of which have been successful in bringing about change in U.S. policy. And they are also members of Make Stewardship Count, which has advocated for the Marine Stewardship Council make its fisheries standard and certification process more stringent in its environmental protections. But O’Connell said her group prefers to work directly with fishermen to change practices on the water.

“Collaboration is always the best way. It might not always work and it can be frustrating sometimes. But there needs to be collaboration and dialogue is always important. There needs to be open lines of communication. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Where it doesn’t, that’s where lawsuits and other approaches come in. But given the complexity and growing number of these kinds of problems worldwide, there has to be a way for people to share ideas on how to create improvement,” she said. “The problem when you get down to 330 animals in the right whale population and fewer than 10 vaquita, tensions run high and that can complicate things. Everybody needs to try harder to listen to each other. We don’t engage in lawsuits frivolously. We don’t question Marine Stewardship Council assessments frivolously.”

However, O’Connell bristled at those in the fishing industry who don’t take her and her colleagues in the NGO community seriously.

“Sometimes we’re viewed like we’re crazy, nutty NGOs that don’t know what we’re talking about. But we do our homework. We research these issues thoroughly. We want to share our expertise and point of view, so we ask those in the fishing industry to please be open to that and don’t automatically shut down that line of communication,” she said. “I’m also worried about the defensive posture from the industry, especially the Gulf of Maine lobster industry, which has engaged in so many lawsuits on their own, as has the NGO community. It’s getting harder and harder to see a way through as long as that’s happening.”

O’Connell acknowledges that tensions often run high between NGOs seeking to preserve threatened and endangered species and those who depend on fishing for a living. But she said, for her part, preventing species extinction is the highest priority.

“It really been a frustrating situation for everyone. Unfortunately, we’re at the stage where the loss of even one right whale brings the entire species closer to extinction,” she said. “We’re hoping to continue to work with industry to find solutions that will work for them while also protecting every individual right whale out there.”

The Animal Welfare Institute believes ropeless fishing gear can be a solution that works for all parties, but O’Connell said she’s been frustrated by the pushback it has gotten from lobster fishermen.

“When you look at number of ropes and lines in the water, it’s staggering. With such low numbers of right whales, every line poses a risk. So we really need to get rope out of the water,” she said. “I was hopeful they would be more open to ropeless fishing gear. A few are trying it, and it seems to have been relatively successful in Canada – I’m hearing good things about tests that have been run up there, especially with snow crab, but also lobster gear.”

The use of weak links in lobster lines, which was mandated by NOAA for use this lobster season, is a “very expensive interim step” that is “keeping many from doing a full transition to ropeless gear,” O’Connell said.

“We understand it’s an expense and a pain, but if you’re facing additional closures, why not try this gear – you might be allowed to be use it in areas that would otherwise be closed to you,” she said. “But when you look at how lucrative the lobster industry is, small-scale lobster fishermen should be able to rely on these larger lobster companies for support. It’s our feeling if you’re causing a problem or are the potential cause of a problem, you should have financial support for better alternatives.”

O’Connell said more retailers should also be supporting development of new gear types, as Publix has done. And that support should extend to legislation, including the Right Whale Coexistence Act, which was introduced in March 2022 in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, and collaborative measures such as the Fisheries and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Bycatch Mitigation Project, launched in June 2022 and supported by the International Whaling Commission, she said.

“We have to try all avenues we can,” she said, adding that cross-border initiatives between Canada and the United States will be vital to the effort, as “both Canada and the U.S. share responsibility for protecting these animals, as they are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the Canadian Species at Risk Act,” meaning that legally, both governments acknowledge the loss of even a single individual animal moves the species closer to extinction.

O’Connell said a potential model for that collaboration is the relationship that has developed between the governments of the U.S. and Mexico regarding the vaquita, where Mexico has enacted several regulations in coordination with the United States. However, the Mexican government’s actual implementation of those regulations has fallen short, she said.

“Mexico has been very good at paper regulations but actually making them stick has been a real challenge,” she said. “The Mexican government has completely failed in its response, and I would also say Mexican industrial-scale fishing companies have not done enough to help smaller-scale fishers in changing and improving their methods.”

O’Connell said she remains hopeful about the vaquita’s future, despite their extremely delicate situation and a failure of the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to heed calls to take further action to limit seafood trading with Mexico until it begins enforcing laws intended to protect the species.

“As long as the gillnets in the Gulf of California are completely removed, biologists are still hopeful they can recover. It will take a very long time and will be very difficult, but there is still hope,” she said.

Ziegler said the next problem the seafood industry must work harder to confront is its impact on shark populations – and particularly rare or threatened species of sharks. She cited efforts to protect shortfin mako, oceanic whitetip, tope,  and hammerhead sharks both in the U.S. and in the European Union, as well as through various regional fishery management organizations.

“It’s not too late; We still can get this right,” Ziegler said. “This is their opportunity to do it well.”

But O’Connell said there is concern in the NGO community that climate change, pollution, and overfishing will continue to push more species to the brink. And future problems involving endangered and threatened marine species are likely to be even more complicated than the current situations with the vaquita and right whale, she said.

“The vaquita and the North Atlantic right whale are two of the best-studied marine species on the planet at this point, but a lot of the species that are facing problems we don’t know much about,” she said. “The pressures on marine species are global and constant. Every time I turn around, another species is in critical danger. And in five years, with the rapid environmental changes that the oceans are undergoing, species with no problems today could have massive problems then. We really need an urgent global effort that brings people with expertise in mitigation and management to the decision-making level if we want to meet this challenge head-on.”

Bringing fishermen and the broader seafood industry back into a collaborative position with the NGO community, rather than an antagonistic one, will be key to solving those future problems, Ziegler said.

“We are not enemies, we are friends, because we are actually trying to make them into what they need to be,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Cliff White/SeafoodSource


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