Are right whales big business for nonprofits?

Sun, 12/31/2023 - 8:00am

    Forget the green economy, the deep blue economy has it beat by a nautical mile. Ever wonder how much money is spent trying to protect the North Atlantic right whale? Ask any of the non-profit corporations that participate in funding to save them. 

    Here in Maine, at least nine non-profit organizations support right whale conservation efforts, in addition to state agencies and the University of Maine.

    Nationally, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium shows 47 environmental organizations it identifies as "partners" on its website. Another 37 environmental groups signed a PEW charitable trust letter to Congress last March, critical of what it believed to be too little funding to protect the species.

    Recently, the Register took a look at the “business" of saving the North Atlantic right whale (NARW).  How are funds used and how are major corporations using the whales to enhance their environmental image?

    In September, the U.S. Department of Commerce and NOAA announced $82 million from the Inflation Reduction Act would be spent on efforts to conserve the species. Included in the overall amount were $17 million for acoustic monitoring, $9.1 million for satellite artificial intelligence and monitoring and $17.9 million for fishing gear technology. This followed $55.5 million to protect the whales, in an omnibus spending bill Congress approved in 2022. 

    With only 340 right whales to protect, where is all the money going?

    With that much grant money, the list of non-profit organizations vying for funding is extensive. And the nonprofits are as varied as the New England Aquarium and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

    Trying to identify how NARW support is given and how much is spent per program might be just as hard as finding the whales. Typically, the information appears on one line as "program spending" in non-profit financial reports, but how much is spent on what is often hard to extract from the available documents.

    The other difficulty in identifying how the funds are spent lies in their journey from Congress to federal agencies to third party nonprofits to special programs and from these to individual funds established for grants. 

    As an example, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) was chartered by Congress in 1984 as a nonprofit to award grants for conservation projects in the U.S. It is not a government agency.

    Instead, it receives federal funds from government agencies and, in turn, distributes them to conservation organizations for projects it approves. As it states on its website: "Financial commitments to our conservation mission since our founding now reach $8.1 billion." It also takes in contributions from large corporations and, as it explains, "administers an environmental grant portfolio for each corporate partner," which is another funding source for environmental nonprofits. According to its website, "NFWF currently works with 15 federal partners and more than 53 corporate and foundation partners" and is "the nation's largest private conservation grant-maker."   

    For years, corporations have donated to environmental nonprofits as a way to shape public opinion about their impact on the environment. It's a practice known as "greenwashing" their image. Many nonprofits publicize large donations, but it can be hard to isolate the amounts allocated to specific programs from corporate sponsors.

    Mo' Money, Mo' Studies

    With millions of dollars for right whale conservation, grants for research are many; this November, NOAA and NFWF announced they awarded grants totaling more than $18 million focused on "innovative fishing gear." 

    Because fishing gear entanglements are blamed for the decrease in right whales, efforts for years have looked at creating a ropeless fishing alternative that would cause fewer whale entanglements. Research into this over the past three years has received at least $38.3 million in funding in the U.S. and Canada, including $18 million from NOAA and NFWF and a $20 million fund announced by Canada. 

    Maine Department of Marine Resources also receives federal funds. One just announced in November will provide around $5 million to find alternatives for trap and fishing gear.  Another three-year grant of $714, 245 from 2018-2020 was to assess vertical line use, according to NFWF. 

    As part of the American Rescue Plan funds for Maine in 2021, DMR received $3 million which, "will fund right whale research and administration of the recently enacted requirement that 100% of lobster harvesters submit landings reports. Improved information regarding whales and fishery activity will inform offshore wind siting decisions to mitigate negative impacts to right whales and the lobster industry," explained Communications Director Jeff Nichols in an email to the Register.

    Last month, Gov. Janet Mills and DMR Commissioner Patrick Keliher announced the state was receiving more than $17 million from NOAA allowing DMR to expand research to detect the whales' presence in the Gulf of Maine.   

    Do donors influence research?

    On the West Coast, the non-profit Monterey Bay Aquarium has approached NARW preservation using a different sort of financial influence. The aquarium was started with a gift from David and Lucile Packard and, at the end of 2022, it had net revenue in excess of $155 million for the full year, according to its IRS filing. On its website, the Packard Foundation lists grants to Monterey Bay Aquarium since 2018 totaling $261 million. 

    One of the aquarium's programs is "Seafood Watch," which last year updated assessments of 14 Canadian and U.S. fisheries it believed were posing risks to right whales from their fishing gear. It placed lobster on its "red list," and worldwide buyers were told not to buy lobster, due to the risk to whales. The Maine lobster industry at the time was valued at $389 million, according to Fortune Magazine. 

    Using threats to sea life to shift public opinion is not unique to the past year. Was the aquarium following an old playbook, applying social pressure by red-listing lobster?

    In 2011, Packard Foundation trustees received a Stanford University paper which discussed ways to change marine conservation and reform fisheries. In what today's fisheries might say are familiar-sounding tactics, the paper advised, "encouraging buyouts, reducing capacity, developing and deploying new technologies to reduce bycatch and using social pressure and conservation marketing." Explaining how to use social pressure, the paper advises, "Marketing of 'dolphin safe' tuna is the classic example." Following this earlier advice, will the aquarium’s Seafood Watch require “whale safe” lobster?

    In another example, last year, Save the Right Whales Coalition published a report chastising environmental nonprofits for taking contributions from companies in the offshore wind industry. The report listed 19 examples of organizations concerned with right whales and other conservation efforts that became silent after receiving donations from wind energy companies. One of the examples cited as a conflict in the report is a 2020 grant of $296,816 from Shell USA and NFWF to Blue Planet Strategies to reduce entanglements in fishing gear.

    What about those other whales?

    Meanwhile, in the Gulf of Mexico, a different whale is facing extinction. Known as the rice's whale, scientists believe there may only be around 50 left in the world. According to a Washington Post article, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill is estimated to have killed about 20% of their population. 

    Efforts on their behalf are quieter than efforts to save right whales and fewer non-profit organizations solicit donations for them. Corporate donors don’t seem to be as concerned with rice's whale extinction as with their fellow whales in the North Atlantic. In fact, the most recent publicity about rice's whales has involved court decisions. One in September permitted the sale of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico to continue despite the administration's attempt to reduce the acreage so the whales would have some protection.

    Shell Offshore, Chevron and the American Petroleum Institute joined with Louisiana in suing to reverse the reduction in area and prevailed in court, clearing the way for bids on 2,700 square miles in the Gulf, offering $382 million for the right to drill for oil and gas in those areas.

    This summer, environmentalists asked National Marine Fisheries Service to limit vessel speeds to 10 knots in an area between Pensacola and Tampa where rice's whales exist. According to an NPR report, the Florida Ports Council pushed back against the limit, with Mike Rubin, chief executive officer of the Council, calling it "crazy" and "a danger to our economy and public safety." In October, NOAA announced it would deny the petition. The agency explained that additional tasks, planning and risk assessment were needed before mandating restrictions on vessels.

    As the numbers show, a big money-maker for environmental groups is the right whale whose plight in the North Atlantic draws attention away from rice's whales in the Gulf of Mexico. And so, in an odd marriage, corporations have paired up with environmental groups and made major contributions to the efforts to save right whales.  

    Why does one species of whale receive hundreds of millions of dollars while another species that is even more endangered is not receiving comparable attention?  Is saving whales like buying real estate? Is it all about location, location, location? Does it depend on how valuable its habitat is for commercial development?

    Is the line from a lobster buoy more lethal than the spill from an oil rig?