More than 1,000 miles; that’s how far the North Atlantic right whale travels in a year. 1,000 miles, from the chilling waters of Canada and New England to the warm waters of coastal Georgia. That’s the same distance from New York to Missouri. With that great distance, why are conservationists so concerned with the season spent on the southeastern coast?
The answer is simple: calving.
Every November to April, Georgia’s coast is blessed with young right whales—the Georgia and North Florida coastlines are their only known calving ground in the world. Sadly, in the past year, only eleven mother/calf pairs were spotted. These numbers are normal for recent years, but much lower than historical rates and what is needed to sustain the population.
Since 2017, NOAA estimates that at least 60 right whales have been killed or injured due to human interaction. With fewer than 350 right whales left in the world, these numbers are staggering. The southeastern coast has a delicate balance; losing right whales could throw that balance off completely. This brings us back to the question: Why are these numbers so scary to conservationists everywhere?
Right whales have been facing human-induced issues for hundreds of years. Interestingly, the name right whale alludes to the whale’s mass hunting in the 1800s: they were the “right” whale to kill for fat and oil. In 1935, the commercial hunting of whales was made illegal worldwide, knocking out the horrible practice, but not erasing its devastating effects. Although hunting is largely over, human interactions still pose multiple issues to the oceanic mammals. One of the primary threats right whales face is entanglement in gear and rope from the lobster and snow crab industries.
If you have ever studied Greek myths, you might be familiar with the name “Argo,” the epic ship that carried the hero Jason and his crew across the sea. The ship went down in history for its powerful symbolism and the strength it embodied on its journeys. The legendary name is now tied to something just as mighty: right whale number 1218.
The forty-two-year-old male right whale “Argo” recently made headlines. Imagine if you will, a magnificent creature—majestically gliding through the dim waters of the Atlantic—dragged down in a moment. The grace and ease of swimming, replaced by the frantic panic of tight ropes clawing through smooth flesh. Attempts to shake the new accessory are fruitless as the heavy traps and gear trail hauntingly behind him.
Like many right whales, Argo had become entangled in lobster pots and fishing rope. However, unlike many of his species, Argo was lucky: he was freed by a team including Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologists in January. The process that relieved Argo from his fishing-induced chains was a multi-day endeavor. DNR worked tirelessly to remove the lobster pots, gear, and rope from his tail, eventually succeeding and allowing him to swim away. However, he hasn’t been spotted since. We don’t know whether he will survive his grievous injuries.
What’s most unsettling about Argo’s story is the reason for his tribulation. One of the coast’s greatest industries is the lobster fishery; lobster harvested in New England is then sold around the country for the rolls and soups so many of us enjoy. Unfortunately, the trapping process puts right whales in grave danger. Like in Argo’s case, many whales get caught in the ropes and gear that connect and support the traps. These traps, while providing humans with a delicious crustacean meal, put whales in danger every time they are placed in water.
The issue with lobster pots and other traps is that their prime location is right in the migration journeys of right whales. Since 2017, nine documented right whale deaths have been directly linked to entanglements (and research demonstrates that only about 1/3 of deaths are documented). Nine deaths may not seem like a large loss, but with fewer than 350 whales left, this number is terrifying. Allow me to demonstrate: As a high schooler, I am constantly reminded of the size of my “graduating” class. That size is roughly four-hundred students. That’s right: my class size is larger than the number of right whales left on the planet. Let that sink in. An entire species is smaller than a high school class. Now take nine from that number—this is the threat that right whales face.
As far as we can tell, lobster trapping will continue, regardless of what is happening to right whales. That doesn’t mean that you can’t do something. In 2021, One Hundred Miles launched the “Eat Local, Not Lobster” campaign. The meaning of this phrase is simple: instead of eating lobster from the upper east coast, eat other seafood that you can get locally. Your choice sends a message that protecting right whales is important to you. This may seem like we’re asking a lot, but when a whole species is at risk, it’s a small price to pay.
Think about where you find lobster. You might imagine the cartoon image of a bright red crustacean sitting on a plate, adorning a bed of greens. You may not take into account times when lobster is an ingredient of something we love: lobster bisque, lobster rolls, and some sushi. Lobster—even when tucked into other ingredients—is still lobster. If we can choose more sustainable choices over lobster, the result—however small it may seem—will do right whales a world of help. In the famous words of Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Right whales are a critically endangered species especially due to the interactions of humans. To many people, their plight may seem hopeless, but I would like to believe better. The right whale is a regal creature that has been wrongfully treated by people for generations. Let’s break that tradition.
If you want to help you can always donate to organizations focused on the protection of the species and keep tabs on where your food is coming from and what it may be hurting. You can find tools to help you at OneHundredMiles.org/Right-Whales. Of course, the easiest thing to do is limit lobster eating. These whales need help and it’s up to people like you and me to see that done.
The right whale might have once been the “right” whale to kill; let’s make it the “right” whale to save.
Eva Purdy is an 11th grade student at Glynn Academy and 2nd year participant in One Hundred Miles’ Youth Environmental Leadership Program. This piece is a result of her deep dive into the world of conservation and protecting the North Atlantic right whale.