The Price of Saving a Whale

I should probably write about fishing more. It seems there’s a huge open niche for a brilliantly-designed blog [have I thanked Brian and Jake lately? No? You guys rock.] about Cape Cod/New England fishing issues. The problem is that I spend enough hours of my day battling with the thesis that often when I get here to write a little I’d much rather wax poetic on the other things in life I’m interested in.

But occasionally something pops up that gets the juices flowing enough to spend some non-thesis time thinking about fish and fishing. I came across this Cape Cod Times article (hat tip to Buck) about a Chatham fisherman going to court for his interactions with a federally endangered humpback whale. It seems the problem started when the whale became entangled in the fisherman’s gear (gillnet? longline? lobster pots? the article doesn’t say) and escalated when he freed it. A federal observer was on board, and when the paperwork got back to the government about the interaction, an investigator pursued the fisherman for violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

I understand why the Marine Mammal Protection Act exists. I understand that disentanglement of large, powerful, at times dangerous marine mammals should be handled by professionals. I think maybe the fisherman was trying to undo the harm so he wouldn’t be punished for the take, which is probably irresponsible and/or ignorant. But really, when you look at the ultimate outcome: the whale, freed, “apparently unharmed;” is it really fair to punish this man with a $100,000 fine and up to a year in jail? He’s an at-sea professional in his own right, and probably the next best person to attempt disentanglement. He was on-scene, immediately. How long would it have taken rescuers to arrive? Would waiting for them have cost the mammal undue time spent suffering, or even irreparable harm that the fisherman, in acting quickly, avoided?

I live on Cape Cod, with it’s extensive ties to a sea-faring history, and go to school in the number one fishing port in the USA. I work in cooperative fisheries research, and while I consider myself to have a strong conservation ethic, I also sympathize with commercial fishermen. I have spent the last five years wading through indecipherable laws and regulations and hearing the stories about how hard it is to make a living harvesting from the sea. Part of why I got into this field is the interdisciplinary challenge it provides: getting the biology, sociology, economics, history, and anthropology right is so complex, and only the beginning. Fishermen continually bemoan government regulation and conservationist protest, but have not shown the capacity to effectively regulate themselves (in this region at least, it has been successful elsewhere).

I’ve recently seen a rising number of bumper stickers that read “The National Marine Fisheries Service: Ruining Fishing Communities since 1976" (or something along those lines…). Prosecution of a fisherman for helping out a whale is exactly the sort of thing to propagate this animosity. The government is notoriously inefficient, and at times mis-directed. Commercial fisheries are in dire need of help. Spending money and resources to punish a man for saving a whale is not going to help anyone.

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(Obviously there is an entire side of the argument based on that crazy thing called “the law.” I avoid that, because it’s not my specialty, and generally reads like Greek to me. Hopefully Buck will take it up on his blog.)

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This is an article that was posted on Apr 9, 01:30 PM.

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