Governor Neil Abercrombie Gets Somewhat Ironic Painting of Engtangled Whale From Humpback Whale Sanctuary

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Today Governor Neil Abercrombie got a new painting for his office. Or maybe just to hang up in the capitol somewhere. Anyway, it’s a very good painting, though it’s also very sad. Painted by Tom Freeman, it depicts a whale entangled in fishing line. Officials with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary gave the painting to Abercrombie to highlight what they see as the preeminent danger facing the whales.

Here’s how sanctuary officials put it in an Aug. 22 press release:

Marine mammal entanglement is a global problem and is the primary threat to humpback whales. It has been estimated that over 300,000 whales and other marine animals die each year worldwide as a result of entanglements. Since 2002 more than 68 humpbacks have been confirmed as entangled in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS). When a humpback is entangled it is at high risk for starvation, drowning, and infection.

“It’s sad to think of any creature suffering injury or worse from marine debris,” said Freeman, whose work has been exhibited at many galleries across the U.S. and at the White House. “My hope is that this painting will shed light on a serious problem and inspire people to become better stewards of humpbacks and their habitats.”

The painting actually illustrates a profound contradiction that’s gripping the Humpback Whale Sanctuary these days. On the one hand, the sanctuary seems genuinely concerned about marine fishing debris, and how entanglements in that derelict gear can cause slow, agonizing deaths to the gentle creatures of the deep.

But at the same time, a key Sanctuary Advisory Council member–that would be Phil Fernandez, who is also president of the Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition–is spearheading an effort to take humpback whales off the federal endangered species list (click here for my May 2013 story on Fernandez).

Fernandez is outspoken about his view that the sanctuary needs to do a better job of taking into account island fishing rights, and believes the case for humpback whales being completely free and clear from possible extinction is so strong that to leave them on the federal endangered species list “compromises” the “integrity” of the list.

What exactly is going on at the sanctuary is a complex, political issue (a sanctuary spokesperson has refused to comment on Fernandez’ actions concerning the endangered species list). But the painting given to Abercrombie sends a powerful, unmistakeable message from the sanctuary: humpback whales are still in great danger.

Image of Tom Freeman painting courtesy of National Marine Sanctuary Foundation