By now, most people have seen or heard about the viral video of two anglers freeing an endangered whale who was entangled in fishing gear, possibly sea-bass or lobster traps, off the Virginia coast. The whale – North Atlantic right whale No. 3123, one of fewer than 400 of her kind in existence – wasn’t the first marine mammal to have become entangled in fishing gear, and she certainly won’t be the last. In fact, such unintended victims of fishing nets, lines and traps – so-called “bycatch” – are one reason why I don’t eat seafood. I came face to face with one of those victims myself more than 15 years ago.
My husband and I were cruising on our 35-foot sailboat on the Intracoastal Waterway near Charleston, S.C., when we heard a call come over the radio about a distressed dolphin just ahead of us. We soon came upon the small dolphin, who was hopelessly entangled in what appeared to be a crab pot. The youngster was obviously exhausted and barely able to summon the strength to surface for air. We radioed the Coast Guard but were told it wouldn’t be able to get anybody out for a couple of hours. Looking at the young dolphin struggling to breathe, we feared that he wouldn’t be able to hang on for that long.
We set out an anchor, and my husband hung off the transom with a knife and began sawing away at one of the lines. It was extremely difficult work, since every time he picked up the line, which was wrapped around the dolphin’s tail, it forced the dolphin’s head underwater, and he thrashed in panic. Finally, the line broke, and the dolphin immediately sped forward – but he wasn’t free of all the lines and buoys yet. Right about then, some men in a small motorized skiff came along, and my husband “commandeered” it to pursue the dolphin and remove the rest of the lines. “The dolphin is free,” we later radioed, and cheers went up across the airwaves.
This dolphin and the rescued right whale are not anomalies. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than 100,000 marine mammals and a staggering 1 million seabirds die every year because of ingestion of and entanglement in marine debris.
Commercial fishing practices are highly efficient – and highly destructive. Factory fishing trawlers use enormous nets that vacuum up everything in their path. Such nets are believed to be responsible for the deaths of nearly 1,000 marine mammals every single day.
Longline fishing for tuna and swordfish – in which dozens of miles of fishing line is barbed with thousands of hooks – “accidentally” kills hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and albatrosses every year.
Shrimp trawlers may throw up to 85 percent of their haul back into the sea, making shrimp perhaps the most lethal seafood that a person can eat.
Thanks to such rapacious overfishing, the population of the world’s large predatory fish, such as tuna, swordfish, flounder and cod, has been decimated by 90 percent since 1950. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, nearly 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks for which data are available are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.
Personally, I cannot support such wholesale slaughter on the high seas. Fish are intelligent animals and have been documented using tools. Recent research indicates that dolphins come up with distinct names for each other. An all-you-can-eat meal at the seafood buffet is simply not worth snuffing out the life of one of the last few right whales or loggerhead sea turtles or causing a dolphin to drown in panic.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Bobbie Mullins is a retired office manager in Norfolk, Va. She wrote this for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front Street, Norfolk, Va. 23510; www.PETA.org. Information about PETA’s funding may be found at www.peta.org/about/numbers.asp.