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  • Pamela Beason

“It’s My Job” vs “It’s Killing the Ecosystem” – Which Should Win?

Warning—this post is going to be a bit of an environmental/preservation/save-the-planet rant, because that’s where my brain is these days, and after all, I write environmental mysteries. I recently attended an educational retreat organized by and for Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a nationwide women-led group that advocates for public lands, as you might expect from the name of the organization. We were on beautiful, primitive Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine, at the Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership.

A filmmaker showed us his film about how lobster fishing is rapidly killing the North Atlantic Right Whales. And I do mean rapidly. There are only around 350 whales left in the world, and if nothing changes, they will most likely become extinct in the next decade or so. Legend has it that they were called “right whales” because they were easy to slaughter, so the right victims to hunt. The whales die from becoming entangled in fishing gear, typically the lines that extend from surface buoys to lobster traps below. The ropes wrap around the poor whales, eventually drowning them or cutting so deeply into their flesh that they succumb to their wounds. The scenes of severely wounded whales desperately trying to swim while trailing buoys and traps were heart-rending to watch. (Some whales also die from collisions with boats, but it’s unknown how many of those boats belong to lobster fishermen.)

photo of right whale entangled in lobster fishing lines from This image copied from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2020/01/29/right-whales-urgently-need-protection-from-entanglement-in-fishing-gear
This image copied from https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2020/01/29/right-whales-urgently-need-protection-from-entanglement-in-fishing-gear

The filmmaker tried to be even-handed by showing the lobster fishermen in public meetings, arguing against proposed restrictions on their activities. Of course, they brought up the “this has always been my family business” argument. This made me clench my teeth, because I remember this argument well from the loggers during the debate about the Spotted Owls in the Pacific Northwest and preservation measures for the old growth forests they depend on. When I drove around the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, I saw plenty of hostile signs that read “This Family Supported by Logging” and “Spotted Owl Barbeque” signs all over the place.

While I do feel some sympathy for those who lose their jobs due to change, why should we feel worse for a logger or a lobster fisher than for a manufacturing worker who loses a job to robotics? I personally have lost jobs due to outsourcing and direction-changing decisions from companies—who is crying for the millions like me? These loggers and fishers are arguing that they should be allowed to continue activities that harm the entire planet. How sympathetic would we be if the loggers honestly said, “I should be allowed to cut down the last old growth tree on earth because I can make money from it”? Or if a lobster fisher said “So what if a species of whales goes extinct; I deserve to make a living from lobsters”? Consumers are often ignorantly complicit in the destruction, paying more than $30 for a lobster roll or using rare mahogany in their homes. Industry does not want us to know the true cost of the products we buy.

Tradition has been forced to give way to change throughout history, and in coming years, we will all need to make changes to save our planet and all the species on it. Personally, I’m not eating lobster, and I’m lobbying my government representatives to save the right whales.