The right whales to save

by Flordespina Dodds [right whale photos by Charla Basran]

When people ask me what my favourite whale is, there’s no question in my mind — the North Atlantic Right Whale. Why? Well I do like the way they look; they are quite chubby, they have cute patterns on their faces and their babies are adorable, but the same things could be said about many other whale species. So, what really makes the North Atlantic Right Whale stand out for me? Unfortunately, it’s the situation we have put them in, along with the proximity of their populations to my Canadian home which places them in the spotlight for me.

First, let me introduce my favorite whale species: The North Atlantic Right Whale (NARW). These whales grow up to 16 m in length, weight up to 64 tons and can live up to 75 years – that’s equivalent to the weight of 600,000 bananas and the length of 50 chihuahuas (that’s pretty huge!). While they have large pectoral fins, they have no dorsal fins. Moreover, the large patches of raised skin tissue on their faces, referred to as callosities, create unique patterns allowing each individual to be identified by scientists, e.g., a NARW whose callosities appear to form a small rabbit has been named ‘Cottontail.’ Right whales spend their summers feeding off the east coast of Canada and the USA, then, in the winter, migrate down to Georgia and northern Florida to breed and give birth to their young. That way, they resemble Canadian ‘snowbirds’ who escape the nation’s frigid winter weather. These whales swim close to shore and move quite slowly which unfortunately made them very easy to hunt; accordingly, they were named right whales: “the right whales to hunt”.

The impacts of whaling on this species were catastrophic – by the early 20th century their population was estimated to have declined to only 100 individuals! Can you imagine being left with 100 people? It is difficult to estimate this species’ pre-whaling population size; however, hunting records show that between the 17th and 20th centuries at least 5500 right whales were killed, with this number likely being underestimated because of species misidentification and lost records. Such a small population causes its own issues, including a limited gene pool. If there is a lot of gene diversity, the population is resilient and persistent. For example: if the population faces a new challenge, like a disease, a greater genetic diversity raises the likelihood that some individuals will be resistant. However, if a population only has 100 individuals it becomes less likely that there will be disease resistant individuals. This small gene pool can lead to lower reproductive fitness, and a limited ability to adapt to environmental changes, increasing the risk of extinction, yet another issue for them to deal with.

Today their population has increased to about 411 individuals making them the most endangered great whale in the world. As of 2018 there were only 76 females able to bear calves and birth rates have been gradually decreasing. No births were reported in 2018—none, zero, nada! These whales are still facing numerous threats preventing them from recovering to pre-whaling populations. The greatest threats to this population are vessel strikes, entanglement, and habitat degradation including noise pollution, changes in prey availability and coastal construction. As though we hadn’t made their recovery hard enough already.

Since these whales like to take life easy and go slow, they have difficulty moving out of the way of ships and given their lack of a dorsal fin it can be difficult to spot them. Since 2015, 36 NARW deaths have been recorded, 18 of which scientists were unable to determine the cause of due to decomposition, and of the remaining 18 whales, 8 were killed by vessel strikes.

The remaining 10 died due to entanglement. Entanglement in fishing lines and other marine debris can be lethal. This can limit the whale’s ability to swim, eat, and dive and can ultimately lead to death by exhaustion or malnutrition. Can you imagine having ropes and buoys tied around your mouth so you can’t eat, or having fishing gear wrapped around your legs so you can’t move? That is reality for these animals, and we are causing it. From 2012 to 2016, 90% of NARWs deaths were entanglement related, with a mean of 5.15 NARWs dying or being seriously injured by fishing gear each year. Roughly 83% of NARWs are entangled at least once in their lifetime and 59% get entangled more than once. That is insane!

Habitat degradation adds to the stress these animals must live with. Shipping noise can make it difficult for them to communicate and find mates. Imagine trying to speak at a club, no one can hear you, but they could if only the DJ would turn down the music. Coastal construction can force them to make large detours during their migration – these sleek giants have places to be and whales to see, they did not ask for this. Moreover, like everything else on earth, they will be affected by climate change. As warm waters continue to spread up into their feeding regions, copepods who love the cold move away, leaving the whales no option but to go farther north or have nothing to eat.

So, all in all, the largest threat to these beautiful, gentle whales are humans and our actions.

Nonetheless, we have made some strides towards protecting these animals. In 2003 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) moved shipping lanes four nautical miles to the east in order to avoid the Grand Manan Basin, a Canadian Right Whale Conservation Area. Of the 50 NARW deaths documented from 1970 to 2003, 38% were caused by vessel collisions, but moving the lanes lowers the likelihood of collisions by 80%. This new regulation only changes travel times by 20-30 minutes for the ships, a small sacrifice when it saves lives.

From 2017 to 2019 there have been changes in vessel traffic regulations in order to minimize the risk of vessel strikes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, once a zone of high deaths rates. These changes have shifted shipping lanes away from critical NARW habitats and have required changes in vessel speed throughout the right whale feeding season. There are also efforts to change fishing habits to limit entanglement risks. Fishing seasons have been shortened, temporary closures implemented when whales are in the area, along with initiatives to encourage changes to ropeless fishing gear.

These are all amazing steps for protecting these whales, but is it enough? Will these actions save the most endangered whale? Have we really done all we can do? The simple answer is no, a great deal remains to be done.

Reporting lost fishing gear and removing existing lost fishing gear will be important in limiting existing hidden threats in the water column. Currently, there are no large-scale efforts for removing lost gear from Atlantic waters. Removing gear from protected areas is critical to effectively protecting the whales from these hidden threats. Protected areas full of lost gear will result in NARWs continuing to become entangled. Further regulations will not only protect the endangered NARWs but also other marine organisms, including the 12 other whale species seen in these areas. As NARWs and other marine mammals have extremely wide-ranging distributions, international cooperation is key to the development and implementation of new regulations. Pre-emptive rather than reactionary protections to environmental events are needed for marine mammal species, before they become endangered to the point of near extinction. Moreover, there is still more work to be done: noise pollution from vessels and blue energy, habitat degradation and prey availability are all issues which, in the absence of regulations, will likely increase in the future, further jeopardizing marine mammal survival.

In 2020 we were witness to a great treat: 10 calves were born! This is very encouraging, and they are all super adorable. Through collaborations between many research groups, more public awareness and changes in policies, there is a great deal of hope for the future of this magnificent species as well as all the other whale species who share the North Atlantic.

So, I hope you can see why the North Atlantic Right Whale is my absolute favourite – and why I feel the responsibility to let people know about them and the many hurdles we put in the way of their recovery. I also hope that I will be able to call them my favourite for decades to come and that the north Atlantic can keep its most amazing of gentle giants.

Right whale in Florida. Photo by Charla Basran

For more information about North Atlantic Right Whales and what you can do to help:

References:

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