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New documentary focuses on plight of right whales in debate over fishing gear

Wildlife photographer Nick Hawkins documents the necropsy of North Atlantic right whale Punctuation (#1281) on Miscou Island, NB.
HitPlay Productions
Wildlife photographer Nick Hawkins documents the necropsy of North Atlantic right whale Punctuation (#1281) on Miscou Island, NB.

News stories about right whales have, of late, focused on the struggle of Maine's lobster fishermen to deal with rules meant to protect the endangered animals. A new documentary debuting next week in Boston puts the focus back on the whales, following one named Snow Cone by scientists.

Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz spoke with Canadian filmmaker Nadine Pequeneza, who produced and directed "Last of the Right Whales." She said she became interested in the subject after 12 right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Pequeneza: The cause of death was something that has been occurring with this species for decades: entanglement in fishing gear, and also ship strikes. But they haven't traditionally been coming to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. And it's with climate change and the changing ocean currents, which is changing the distribution of their food, forcing the whales further north to look for the plankton, the copepods that they feed on. And so it was really an awakening, I think, for a lot of Canadians.

Gratz: So what you ultimately chose to do is highlight a couple of individuals and kind of follow them and tell their stories. How were you able to do that?

Once you start working with these scientists, they know them on an individual basis. I mean, there's only 336 estimated still alive today. And virtually all of them have been numbered or cataloged. Many of them have been given names by the scientists, and they know their family histories because they've been tracking them for so many generations. They'll know grandmothers, the young ones and grandcalves. So it's really quite interesting how Snow Cone and her calf that we follow — from the birth of Snow Cone's first calf to that calf's death, to Snow Cone's entanglement. And then, miraculously, she gave birth to another calf this season while still entangled.

Maine and its lobster fishermen have been battling regulators over restricting vertical trap lines. Among the arguments that are made by Maine and the lobstermen is that the whales are just not known to frequent the areas where they set their traps. In the course of your filming and research, did you find any evidence that contradicts that?

We did not film in Maine, so I don't have direct evidence to contradict that. But I can tell you that on our last shoot, we were filming in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and we came across a whale who had just become entangled within hours. The research vessel had gone through ahead of us and photographed this whale gear free. And then four hours later, we were filming it thrashing around for hours at the surface, trying to free itself from gear that it had become entangled in. That is the only known entanglement in the last two years in Canadian waters. But if we had not been there to see that, no one would have known about it.

Your film does highlight a Canadian crab fisherman who has been working with ropeless traps. I don't want to give away too much of your movie, but does that seem to be working?

Yes, the fisherman that you see in the film is actually the president of the crab fishers association in his region. Martin Noel is his name, and he's been testing this gear. It was his fourth year testing when we filmed with him. But that was the first year they were able to do sort of real world fishing. So before, they were just testing to see if the gear actually popped up. And when we filmed with him, it was the first time that they were actually hauling crab back into the boat using that pop-up system, and they had very good results. And he is one of 10 fishermen that were testing the year we filmed with him, and the next year there were 20 fishermen using the technology.