How can we help the right whale avoid extinction?

Commitments from large restaurants and grocery stores to purchase whale-safe lobster will help.

NOAA Public Library | Public Domain
Virginia Carter

Former Save America's Wildlife Campaign, Associate, Environment America

On the surface, it appears to be a classic “environment versus jobs” debate: whether to save the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale or to protect the New England lobstering industry. 

With fewer than 340 North Atlantic right whales left, the species is rapidly swimming toward extinction. There are only 70 or so calf-bearing females. Deaths outnumber births and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says the whales are currently suffering through an “unusual mortality event.” That’s bureaucratic-speak for, “If we don’t act now, this species will soon disappear forever.”

The leading cause of death and serious injury is fishing-gear entanglements. Ropes connect lobster traps on the ocean floor to buoys on the surface. When cruising through an area with multiple traps, the whales swim through the ropes, sometimes twisting and often getting entangled. How often? According to NOAA: Studies suggest that more than 85 percent of North Atlantic right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once. About 60 percent have been entangled multiple times. 

Once entangled, a whale can drag the heavy gear for months, exhausting them to the point of starvation, slicing into their skin, and making them vulnerable to disease.

A NOAA video about curious whales, their entanglement in ropes, and efforts to disentangle them.

What is ‘ropeless’ fishing gear? 

There is a solution to the entanglement problem. 

Ropeless” fishing gear, sometimes called “on-demand” gear, consists of lobster traps on the ocean floor that can be called up when needed. Some technologies use inflation devices, others use rope (yes, rope) that is spooled in the trap and releases only when told to do so. Whatever the variety, the key essence of ropeless gear is that it does away with the dangerous obstacle course of long, vertical fishing lines in the ocean for whales to swim through.

NOAA | Public Domain

Lobster companies have been slow to use ropeless gear 

So what’s the catch?

Given the availability of ropeless gear and the dire situation of the right whale, at some level it’s surprising that lobstering companies have been slow to take up ropeless gear. But to many stakeholders, it’s not as simple as that.

First, change can be hard to swallow: There’s a way that things are done and have been done for years. We simply have to move past that. To some lobster fishers, another imposing challenge is the cost of new gear, which is often borne up-front by lobster companies and then passed on to consumers. 

We have some thoughts on that. One is that the government can and should chip in to help pay for the transition. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.) and U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.) have long championed legislation in Congress to help fund the transition to whale-safe fishing and we’ve supported their efforts. This funding is sorely needed. 

But unilateral governmental action isn’t fast enough or big enough. That is why a coalition of environmental groups is looking to the marketplace.

Major restaurant and grocery store chains have power to effect positive change

Wouldn’t it be great if major restaurant chains and grocery store chains purchased lobster caught with whale-safe, ropeless gear? Such commitments would tell the lobster industry that there’s a robust market for sustainably caught lobsters. (Plus, these commitments would enable people to eat lobster without contributing to the extinction of the right whale.) 

A coalition is working to make this very thing happen, starting with outreach to  two big players in the market for lobsters: Red Lobster and Whole Foods. Environment America, Endangered Species Coalition, Inland Ocean Coalition, International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute, Marine Mammal Alliance Nantucket, Mighty Earth, NY4WHALES, Ocean Conservation Research, Ocean Conservation Research, One Hundred Miles and more reached out to these two major seafood purchasers, asking them to  commit to only buying lobster caught using ropeless fishing gear. 

Ropeless gear is already being used in our oceans 

It’s worth noting here that incentives in the marketplace already exist. NOAA has closed some areas to lobster traps because of the presence of right whales and some lobstering folks have realized that by using whale-safe gear, they could get into these closed areas and go about their business. As a result, companies, including one in Massachusetts, are making ropeless lobster gear. In the tweet below, there’s a very informative story from ABC 5 in Boston on this topic. 

The advent of these newer technologies changes the entire “either/or” question. It’s not whether we save the right whale or save the livelihoods of those in the lobster business. Instead, it’s whether we transition to whale-safe gear or let more ropes entangle the whales on their way into extinction. 

Action in the marketplace

Sustainability watchdogs are already taking action to save the right whale. Seafood Watch put New England lobster on its “find an alternative” list and the Marine Stewardship Council removed its seal of approval for the Gulf of Maine lobster fisheries. This is a huge deal because tens of thousands of businesses rely on these third-party sustainability verifications. In light of this, Whole Foods suspended purchasing lobster caught in the Gulf of Maine. 

But if we want the right whale to survive and the ability to eat lobster too, then we need lobstering companies to transition to ropeless gear. And wouldn’t it be better to see more grocers and restaurants committing to buying lobster caught with ropeless gear than to see a more widespread boycott of New England lobsters?

Why Red Lobster and Whole Foods

Red Lobster already has commitments to serve “seafood with standards,” noting that its seafood is sustainable and traceable. The company needs to include New England lobster in that commitment. By making a whale-safe commitment, Red Lobster can play a crucial role in building the market for lobster caught using ropeless gear. 

Meanwhile, Whole Foods has already waded into the right whale debate. Now it simply needs to commit to buying the good stuff. 

The groups listed above have written to both brands, asking them to make the following commitments:

  • Help to create a future market for ropeless fishing gear that doesn’t entangle whales by committing to purchase at least 50% of your lobster from ropeless gear by the close of 2025 and 100% by the close of 2030.
  • Incorporate these commitments into your purchasing contracts and make them public, to spur others to follow suit.

Change isn’t easy, so forcing people to make changes that lead to uncertainties can be hard. But if we prioritize the natural world and the species that also inhabit this planet, the choice becomes clear. We must save this endangered whale. 

Thus… Dear Red Lobster and Whole Foods: We’re counting on you to help make this happen.


Virginia Carter

Former Save America's Wildlife Campaign, Associate, Environment America

Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America

Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.