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Wrong Time For Right Whales? Maybe Not

Carl Safina continues our series in which whale scientists, advocates, and whale lovers tell us about their most memorable or favorite North Atlantic right whale experiences.  Carl Safina is author of 6 books and roughly 200 scientific and popular publications, including features in The New York Times and National Geographic and has been awarded such distinctions as: New York Times Notable Book of the Year, LA Times “Best Nonfiction”, the National Academies’ “Year’s Best Book for communicating science” and a MacArthur prize. He is also the founding president of Blue Ocean Institute and hosts Saving the Ocean on PBS television. And generally……he just makes biology really, really cool. We are very honored to present Carl talking about right whales. 

Carl Safina

“You ever been to Georges Bank before?” the fisherman asked me. I hadn’t. “You’re gonna love it,” he said. “The place is alive.” I was on a Canadian boat that spends part of the time lobstering, part of the time a hundred miles offshore, harpooning swordfish. Of the many living wonders I saw during our week on Georges, Right Whales were most impressive. I had not expected them.For their surprise and their rarity, I loved seeing them.

Formerly considered the “right” kind of whales because they were slow, and floated when killed, Rights have been wronged in just about every way people can muster, by everything from harpoons to fishing gear to chemicals to climate changes to ship strikes. Of North Atlantic Right Whales whose deaths were recorded over the last 20 years, ship strikes have killed fully half. More than 75% of North Atlantic Right Whales carry scars from entanglement with fishing nets or trap-lines. And those are the survivors. The actual total number of deaths resulting from human activities is almost certainly higher than the observed number.

Demolished first by whaling, just 350 or so Balaena glacialis in the whole North Atlantic Ocean. They spend most of the year migrating up and down the U.S. East Coast. Those that swam between Europe and West Africa are now so vanishingly rare they may have already blinked out. (Two other Right Whale species ply the seas. North Pacific Right Whales Balaena japonica were abundant summer residents in the south-eastern Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska until whalers slaughtered them to near-extinction; they are seldom seen. The Southern Right Whale Balaena australis has increased to about 7,500 in populations off South America, South Africa, and Australia. Sadly, in the last decade a mysterious source of mortality killed hundreds of young calves in their population off Patagonia.) The legacy of hunting includes not just low numbers but genetic diversity among the lowest identified in a large mammal, making chances for population growth dicey. North Atlantic Right Whales are now so few that whether they increase or decline depends on the addition or subtraction of just two or three breeding females to or from the population.

For food, North Atlantic Right Whales depend most heavily on one species of copepod, Calanus finmarchicus. The size of a grain of rice, these oil-rich creatures are so tiny they make krill look like tuna; so tiny that Right Whales actually compete for the same food eaten by herring, sandeels, and mackerel. They form dense swarms in certain places and certain times. Swimming slowly with their mouths open, filtering the copepods from the sea with the brushy baleen hanging from its upper jaw, one Right Whale can consume 2.6 billion Calanus finmarchicus daily.

Calanus finmarchicus is so sensitive to changes in water temperature and salinity that their populations rise or fall by a factor of ten as conditions change. Scientists are concerned that coming climate changes won’t be favorable. As arctic ice melting accelerated during the 1990’s, fresher, colder water reached the Gulf of Maine, creating conditions unfavorable for C. finmarchicus. Balaena glacialis is so sensitive to changes in Calanus finmarchicus numbers that Right Whale births tracks copepod fortunes, ranging from just one calf born in 2000 to nearly 40 in 2009. What will happen, though, is far from certain.

The Canadian government says, “Recovery of the North Atlantic right whale will require significant international coordination and cooperation.” But this is what humans are worst at. Noise from the seismic equipment used in oil exploration affects whales’ behavior, and thanks to the misguided Obama plan to re-open East Coast oil exploration, the U.S. will inflict more such noise where Right Whales swim and forage. Meanwhile, Japan insists, more whales must be killed.

Yet surprising progress has recently intruded. Lanes for outbound ships in the Bay of Fundy have been altered to reduce the chances of ship strike there by an estimated 90 percent. Based on analysis showing that collision with ships traveling at 15 knots are almost always fatal, but when ships travel at under 12 knots half of struck whales survive, the U.S. established 10-knot ship speed zones around 8 port cities on the East Coast between Georgia and New York. A small northward shift—less than 10 miles—has moved ships coming around Cape Cod into Boston out of a Right Whale feeding area, reducing the collision risk by about 60 percent. Plus, special buoys now listen for Right Whale calls along the shipping lanes into Boston, allowing managers to alert ship operators so they can slow down.

Hope? “There’s been a tremendous amount of good news,” said Tony LaCasse of the New England Aquarium. There may have been as few as 50 North Atlantic Right Whales in 1900, far fewer than today. Despite the setbacks and struggles there are more whales now. By which I mean, the struggles are well worth it. Without that work, frustrating though it can be, there might very well be no Right Whales left in the North Atlantic at all.

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.