Independent film: Amid fight over fishing gear, ‘The Last of the Right Whales’ shines a light on cross-species responsibility

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The Maine premiere of Canadian filmmaker Nadine Pequeneza’s new documentary “Last of the Right Whales” takes place at the Nickelodeon Theater in Portland on April 27, just days before rules designed to protect the species from fishing gear are supposed to come into force.

The film, which features unprecedented footage of the endangered and lesser-known whale species and the people seeking to save it, is the appropriate blend of harrowing, awe-inspiring and infuriating. That’s especially relevant to the Mainers, because the habitat of these 70-ton mammals includes the state’s lobster fishing waters and, as Pequeneza explains, aside from collisions with shipping vessels, the whale free zone of the North Atlantic is the most threatened by the vertical and fixed line. traps used by lobster and crab fishers.

There are now fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales left on Earth. In the year that Pequeneza began filming “The Last of the Right Whales,” 17 of the huge animals were found dead from interactions with humans. In the film, we see dedicated whale watchers, rescuers and biologists (some who specialize in performing autopsies to determine the cause of whale death), breaking down to cry at the unthinkable sight of another dead whale. As part of the effort to track and preserve a terrifying population of enormous animals, the human subjects of Pequeneza’s film become very attached. Whales are spotted, named and traced on their migrations across the Atlantic coast, with the film focusing throughout on one named Snowcone and her calf. I’m not going to spoil their destiny – maybe because I can’t stand it.

As Pequeneza puts it, right whales “have no public image at all, really.” Unlike the majestic and impossibly huge blue whale or humpback whales with their enigmatic songs, right whales are mostly unknown to ordinary mortals. “Last of the Right Whales” seeks, as part of its mission, to rectify that, as Pequeneza and his crew have obtained unprecedented permission to approach right whales in their effort to document whale behaviors and appearances. poorly understood animals.

Basking on their sides, their baleen filtering through the huge amount of tiny plankton they need to survive, the right whales captured by Pequeneza’s cameras are, like all whales, an unlikely sight. Their enormous size combines with a serene, impenetrable softness as these mysterious creatures dive and surface, occasionally popping up for a curious look at the boats following them.

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Five-year-old male entangled in a rope with visible injuries in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

This unknowable serenity is shattered in the film when Pequeneza’s team spots a right whale trapped in the thick ropes of a fishing line, the animal’s incredible power working against her as her capital beating causes that the pitiless rope lacerates his flesh. It’s heartbreaking, as are the whale rescuers’ efforts to free the whales, as their tiny boats have to come perilously close to the terrified animal, with the rescuers throwing grappling hooks to hopefully trap the ropes enough for them. detach.

As Pequeneza notes, and long history teaches us, what appears to be a story of whales and conservation is actually a story of how we relate to our world. “It’s really a movie about us,” said the filmmaker whose career has documented issues ranging from social and economic justice to environmental catastrophe. “It’s about how we as a society protect – or don’t protect – the world we live in. My filmography may seem diverse, but I think it’s all integrated.

Part of Pequeneza’s film is devoted to showing how some fishermen are changing to help preserve the few remaining right whales, including a fishing fleet trying out a new type of lobster and crab trap that removes lines fixed verticals so deadly to ocean life like right whales. As Pequeneza notes, however, “not all anglers are eager to change. Fishing is a unique job. Few people understand it. From their perspective, they don’t want people who aren’t fishers and don’t know what it’s like to tell them how things should be done.

The Maine Lobstermen’s Association has filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, arguing that its 10-year conservation plan to protect right whales, primarily by requiring modifications to commercial fishing gear such as the use of breaking ropes and deploying more traps per line, is not based on the best science available. The new gear restrictions are set to come into effect on May 1 despite ongoing legal challenges from the lobster industry and repeated protests from government officials.

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Meanwhile, a proposal to create a $30 million fund to help lobsters comply with new federal requirements designed to protect endangered right whales received overwhelming, bipartisan support at the Maine House on last month.

The Canadian government began to subsidize the new experimental technology, allowing fishermen to begin the process of changing methods. Pequeneza notes that there is currently a bill under consideration in America to do the same, but that government and public support is needed to make the North Atlantic right whale a priority commensurate with the vulnerability of the species. As Pequeneza clearly states, “We are responsible for the death of the few remaining right whales.”

Or maybe we won’t. Pequeneza herself lays out the situation with measured hope. “We have the technology,” said the filmmaker. “We can do it. I think it is possible. What is needed for these gentle giants to continue to exist is for humans to recognize that we are part of this ecosystem and that we, as dominant species, have a responsibility to mitigate the damage we cause – even if it’s inconvenient, or more expensive. I’d like to think we’re capable of such foresight, even though almost all of human history suggests otherwise. .

North Atlantic Right Whale Snowcone and her calf at the Florida calving grounds.

Part of Pequeneza’s hope lies in his film’s ability to relate to these “prehistoric-looking” animals. And that makes sense – humans tend to feel more protective of creatures they can connect to. Pequeneza’s cameras catch right whales like few have before, and if a whale watcher catches himself anthropomorphizing the clear mother-child bond between Snowcone and her calf, it’s at that moment of understanding that, perhaps- being, humans can be incentivized to do the right thing.

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“Last of the Right Whales” will premiere in Maine at 7 p.m. WednesdayApril 27, at the Nickelodeon in Portland. The 93-minute film will be followed by a 30-minute Q&A with whale experts, including those featured in the film. For more information, visit the film’s website, lastoftherightwhales.com.

Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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