right whale
A right whale breaches. (Courtesy NOAA Fisheries)
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Calling the research “thin,” a federal judge on Oct. 16 overturned a regulation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designed to protect endangered northern right whales. 

The regulation, based on research by scientists at the National Marine Fisheries, would have restricted lobster fishing for three months a year in a 967-square-mile swath of the Gulf of Maine, the only known breeding ground for the right whale.  

The judge’s action was hailed as a victory not only by the Maine Lobster Union but by Gov. Janet Mills, U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden.

I’ve just finished reading “Moby Dick” to the grandchildren, whose own future on this earth is threatened by annihilation brought on by all we humans have done to subdue, conquer, and ultimately destroy nature. The judge, the lobster union, the politicians: they all remind me of Captain Ahab, furious that anything like a whale (a mighty, beautiful, elusive whale!) might constrain his power, his pursuit of profit, his righteous belief in his own prerogative to hunt down and destroy a being that challenges his total control over the sea.

In his fury at being foiled by the whale, Ahab sets out to destroy the very life form that feeds and sustains his future.  

Mark Baumgartner, a marine biologist for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, told the Portland Press Herald “the situation is dire. We have less than 400 animals left and within that group of 400, there’s probably less than 100 available breeding females left. Right now, we are, as a human society, killing more animals than the population can replace.”

This issue here is not only about the right whales in the Gulf of Maine. It is about whether we humans understand that we do have limits to what we can mine, consume, and haul up from the depths and that unless we understand those limits, we will face the kind of destruction so terrifyingly described in the last chapter of “Moby Dick.”

There are, according to the government report, 124 fishing boats that would be affected by a seasonal ban. The ban doesn’t restrict them from lobstering altogether, only from lobstering in that place during that time. It is estimated they would lose 5-10 percent of their income.  

Here in Maine, we have so romanticized the lobstermen, steaming out to sea past rocky islands on a cold pink dawn morning that we dare not question the price of that image: the amount of carbon dioxide those boats release, the tons of small fish removed from the food chain to feed those clawed critters, the right whales entangled in their gear, destined for extinction.

Kathleen Sullivan is a psychotherapist and a writer who has lived in Freeport for almost 50 years. She was one of the editors of the book “A Dangerous New World: Maine Voices on the Climate Crisis,” and is an organizer of the FreeportCAN climate action group.

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