North Atlantic Right Whale

The North Atlantic right whale population has a chance at recovery if entanglement & ship strikes can be avoided.
NOAA Photo Library / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

The effort to protect endangered whales is taking federal officials on a listening tour from Maine, to Rhode Island, and Wednesday night, to Bourne, where nearly 200 people gathered in a high school cafeteria.

Dan Zitterbart of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is developing thermal infrared cameras to help vessels avoid whale strikes.
Dan Zitterbart, WHOI

Eight critically endangered North Atlantic right whales have died this summer, several of them hit by ships.

In the last two years alone, 20 North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters. Of the 11 that could be studied, seven were found to have died as a result of vessel strikes.

That has prompted Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans to announce a new round of funding to develop better ways for ships to find whales and avoid hitting them. 

One of those technologies is thermal infrared imaging.

Entanglement in fishing gear is the suspected cause of death for some of the eight North Atlantic right whales found dead in recent weeks.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada / Fisheries and Oceans Canada

 

 

At the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Christy Hudak, a researcher in the Right Whale Ecology Program, leaned over a microscope looking at a water sample, counting and categorizing different kinds of plankton.  

“Right whales love specific type of plankton, which are called copepods. They are more of a tiny  crustacean plankton—think of crabs, or shrimp,” Hudak said. 

Eve Zuckoff

In the last month, eight North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, including two members of the critically endangered species this past week.  

 

Canadian authorities say work to determine these new whales' cause of death is ongoing.

Whatever the cause of these latest deaths, researchers worry collisions with ships are increasingly to blame.

Punctuation - seen here with a calf in Cape Cod Bay in 2016 - was one of six North Atlantic right whales killed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this month.
Center for Coastal Studies image taken under NOAA permit #14603-1.

Five North Atlantic right whales have been found dead in the past week – six this month. With just over four hundred individuals remaining, and calving rates low, that’s a death toll the critically endangered population can’t afford.

“Panicking seems appropriate, yes,” said Peter Corkeron, who leads the large whale research program at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center.

“With 24 candidates, there are 620 billion trillion possible rankings. When there are many candidates, there are many more ways for people to disagree than to agree.”     -Alexander Strang

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered.
Courtesy of The Center for Coastal Studies

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with just over 400 individuals left, and their numbers declining. The leading causes of death are well-known: right whales are susceptible to being struck by ships, and over 83 percent have shown evidence of being entangled in fishing gear at one point or another.

But the population has also seen low reproductive rates and declining health status in recent years that can't necessarily be explained by those impacts. Now, new research points to another possible culprit: climate change.

NOAA

It’s estimated there are just over 400 North Atlantic right whales remaining, and that number has been declining in recent years. The two main causes of death are both related to human activities – ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. In particular, the lines that connect lobster and crab traps to buoys at the water’s surface are major culprits in entanglements.

NOAA

The year 2017 was a devastating one for North Atlantic right whales. There are just over 400 of the critically endangered whales left, and there were 17 confirmed deaths. In every case in which the dead whale could be examined, the cause of death was found to be either entanglement in fishing gear or being hit by a ship.

The North Atlantic right whale population has a chance at recovery if entanglement & ship strikes can be avoided.
NOAA Photo Library / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

North Atlantic right whales have once again been spotted in New England’s waters, with several sighted south of Nantucket. These iconic large whales are known for gathering in Cape Cod Bay each spring, but their movements have been less predictable in recent years.  

Sarah Tan / WCAI

After an endangered North Atlantic Right whale washed up dead on the shores off Chatham last week, researchers have been working to determine its cause of death. The whale is the second dead right whale recorded this year. 

The North Atlantic right whale population has a chance at recovery if entanglement & ship strikes can be avoided.
NOAA Photo Library / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

There’s a bit of good news when it comes to the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Only one dead whale has been found in 2018, as opposed to the 17 that were found last year.

One possible source of improvement were the closures of the snow crab fishery in Canada and the reduction of ship speeds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the whales were seen in large numbers last year.

Sam Houghton

The endangered North Atlantic right whale is facing extinction, with fewer than 450 left. The most significant cause of mortality for the whales is entanglement in fishing gear, including lobster trap lines. A lawsuit forcing the government to protect the whales may bring about a change in the way lobster fishermen have worked for more than a hundred years.

This four-bladed arrow can be used to cut fishing gear off entangled whales.
Heather Goldstone / WCAI

The disentanglement team at the Center for Coastal Studies might be forgiven for some off-color jokes. Dozens of whales get tangled in fishing gear each year. The results can be grizzly – wounds that cut to the bone, infections, starvation – if not deadly. And attempting to free entangled whales is both physically and emotionally exhausting, not to mention dangerous. What’s not to joke about?  

Bob Lynch stands on the bow of the Center for Coastal Studies' response boat, Ibis, preparing to shoot a four-bladed crossbow arrow to cut the ropes entangling a female North Atlantic right whale known as Kleenex.
NOAA/NEFSC/Leah Crowe / Image collected under MMPA research permit #17335

North Atlantic right whales are severely endangered, and entanglement in fishing gear is a leading cause of both deaths and low birth rates. A small Provincetown-based team tries to free as many whales as possible each year, but these efforts are dangerous and not a permanent solution.

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