Right whales aren’t exactly pretty. They are among the largest whales in the ocean, adults reaching 45 feet to 55 feet in length, and weighing some 70 tons, and their size alone makes them majestic, awe-inspiring creatures of the planet. But they’re baleen whales, not toothed whales; when they open their mouths, long plates of a material similar to human fingernails hang close together from their upper jaws, with fibers that capture the krill and zooplankton they feed upon while the seawater passes through. Since their heads (often coated with disfiguring, but natural, rough, white callosities) take up a third of their body length, the right whale’s open, baleen-strung mouth is a “maw” of the first order.
There are only about 440 North Atlantic right whales remaining, their species having been targeted by the whaling industry for some 400 years because blubber (rendered from the dead carcass for multiple uses as “whale oil”) typically constitutes 40% of the animal’s total weight, insulating it from cold northern water temperatures.
Fortunately, since the 1970s the North Atlantic right whale has been protected in U.S. waters by the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, the Endangered Species Act itself is now endangered as (mainly Republican) politicians seek to do the bidding of ranching, logging and extraction (chiefly oil) interests by reducing protections of at-risk species on both land and sea. That threat was slowed by the takeover of the U.S. House by Democrats following the November 2018 elections, but the coast isn’t clear for the North Atlantic right whale. Last week the National Marine Fisheries Service — which, like many government agencies under the current administration, seems to have turned on its own founding mission (protecting fisheries) — reversed Obama-era policies and issued permits that will allow five companies to release seismic pulses into the ocean floor to detect oil and natural gas deposits.
Conservation organizations like Oceana and the Natural Resources Defense Council say such seismic pulses can travel up to 2,000 miles through the water. They can confuse and interrupt communications between right whale mothers and their calves; if separated, the calves could die. Compounding the threat, National Geographic cited a study showing that zooplankton, the whales’ food source, declined by 64% within about three-quarters of a mile of such seismic blasts. If the blasts locate drillable oil and gas, active extraction will further intrude upon the whales’ habitat and present additional risks.
Nine coastal states have joined environmental groups in a legal challenge to the plan, based in part on their concern for their fishing industries. For this administration, apparently, oil trumps fisheries.
Vermont is not a coastal state. And in Vermont, we take our environmental responsibilities seriously, and seek to protect natural species from intrusion and disruption caused by human activities.
Or so we say. But state agencies like the Department of Fish & Wildlife, and environmental-advocacy organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the Vermont Natural Resources Council, have pointed out for years that our settlement practices have caused forest fragmentation and parcelization — comparatively small forest blocks owned and managed individually by a multitude of landowners, rather than under a single, unifying vision. Our back-to-the-land ethos of the recent past didn’t foresee the disruption that people would cause in their desire to carve a modest roadway into the woods, clear a lot and build an unpretentious house at the end of it, and live close to nature.
We’re learning more about that now, and the DFW, assisted by nonprofits, has created exhaustive documents like a Wildlife Action Plan and a Vermont Conservation Design to show the path out of the problems we have caused.
Yet, we’re not out of the woods. Mountain biking, for example, has grown enormously in Vermont, vying with skiing as a recreational industry in some parts of the state. Enthusiasts are pursuing a 130-mile trail in the Green Mountains between Killington and Stowe. It would be hard, and unfair, to equate hiking, biking and cross-country skiing with Big Oil. But what’s true of the goose is true of the gander: We have not stopped intruding on wildlife habitat, though our intrusions are in the woods, not the seas.
In 2018, the naturalist E.O. Wilson, in a book titled “Earth: Our Planet’s Fight For Life,” proposed that the human race totally turn over 50% of the planet to nature, calling it a “grand retreat” that would allow biodiversity to recover. But in Vermont we love nature, and want to surround ourselves with it. We need to worry whether we’re loving it to death.