COMMENTARY: New Steps to Save Right Whales

The huge black form moves under the water, distinguished by a smattering of bumpy white eruptions on its sleek head. It sends up sprays in soft white showers. It pushes out of the water, breaking the surface with tremendous force, flipper raised like a sail, leaving a giant splash as it dives back down, slapping the water with its powerful tail. This is the North Atlantic right whale, an ocean giant that can reach up to 60 feet and 80 tons; a seemingly invincible creature and king of the sea.

The North Atlantic right whale is critically endangered, with only 350 remaining, a population that is on the decline.© New England Aquarium

But North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered. Less than 350 remain, despite the fact that they’ve been protected from commercial fishing for the past 65 years. Through the 20th century, right whales (so named because they were considered the "right" whale to hunt) were the favorite target of whalers. They swam slowly, lived inland and, due to their thick layer of blubber, floated when killed. From the Basques in the 11th century to European whalers in the 16th century and American whalers hunting the species until it received protected status in 1935, right whales were led to the brink of extinction.

Now scientists are studying those few remaining right whales to determine why their numbers are still on the decline and how technology can be used to help save them.

Right whales travel along an urban coastal zone that stretches from Florida to Canada, and they are at danger at every point from large commercial shipping fleets. According to reports by the Boston-based New England Aquarium, shipping traffic in the busy Mid-Atlantic region resembles congested highways. And it is in these dangerous, crowded lanes that the right whales must bear their calves each winter. Due to national security concerns, the U.S. Coast Guard has refused to issue voluntary speed restrictions. Each time a ship collides with and kills a whale, the species draws closer to extinction. Of the 52 right whale deaths since 1986, the Aquarium’s report says 20 of them (39 percent) were the result of collisions.

"There are no national security issues around lowering speeds to protect whales," says New England Aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse. "Defense-related vessels are already exempt from this type of regulation, as they should be. The vast majority of ship traffic in this area is commercial."

The New England Aquarium is leading efforts to study the reproductive habits of right whales, to learn why there has been such a drastic reduction in reproduction over the past decade, preventing the recovery of the species. In the past, scientists had no means to collect blood samples from living whales, and stranded animals were too decomposed to be of use. But over the last three years, scientists have developed methods of measuring adrenal steroid hormones or "stress" hormones in whale scat. They’ve also been studying 200,000 archived photographs of whales for body condition and health to use as a method of comparison. For the first time, scientists can detect pregnancy and sexual maturity in right whales and can identify whales experiencing high stress levels from natural and human causes.

In the coastal Georgia calving waters, other significant steps are underway to protect the endangered whales. The federal government may have refused to reduce shipping speeds, but it is working in conjunction with state agencies and scientists with Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology Bioacoustics Research Program to test methods of locating whales in the Brunswick region of Georgia (baleen whales are the officially designated state marine mammal in that state). The Cornell team recently dropped six bright yellow acoustical buoys into the whale’s shallow calving waters. These buoys will act as recording devices and have the potential to detect whales, especially mothers and their young, 24 hours a day and report their locations immediately.

"Our goal is to refine the technology to deliver real-time data on the positions of right whales during the calving season, which runs from about mid-November to mid-April. Unless we act now to protect them, particularly in high-traffic ports, they will ultimately disappear from the Earth," said Dr. Christopher Clark, director of the Bioacoustics Research Program. "The calving waters along the coast of Brunswick are extremely important, and we hope that this research will guide us so we can help assure the survival of these majestic animals."

The acoustic method of detecting the whales has the potential to be much more effective than the previous method, which consisted simply of flying over the whales and locating them visually. It could only be done during daylight in good weather. Spotting the whales from the air is possible for only one third of the days in the winter calving season, when whales migrate from New England waters to the Southeast coast.

Rescuers use the technique of "kegging" or attaching buoys to exposed lines to allow them to cut free a whale caught in fishing line. Between 60 and 70 percent of right whales bear scars from entanglements.©

The buoys will collect the whales" vocalizations and scientists will use these sounds to develop a data base, comparing the results with those achieved by the flyover method. If the acoustic buoys are shown to be more effective (as expected), scientists will use that data to determine where to place other buoys which can be used to transmit real-time information on whale location to boaters, marinas and government agencies. While federal and state environmental agencies have been trying to pursue this research for years, they haven’t been able to obtain funding. It took a $100,000 donation from Georgia developer Gary Waxman to jumpstart the effort. Waxman is developing Liberty Harbor, a 110-acre luxury community on the Brunswick waterfront and sees the right whales as one more area attraction.

"Right whales are an amazing part of Brunswick’s natural beauty and heritage," Waxman says. "We can do more than wring our hands about their imperiled future; we want to give conservation scientists the tools they need in the race to protect the whales from extinction."Fishing gear presents as many problems for right whales as the ships do, according to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. The majority of whales, between 60 and 70 percent, bear scars from entanglements, as evidenced by detailed photographs. The rescuing process can be arduous, taking anywhere from hours to weeks if the entanglement is complicated and the whale particularly panicked and resisting help. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies is the lead organization developing tools and training programs for whale rescue, and researchers are developing fishing equipment that’s more "whale-resistant." Specifically, they are designing lines with breakaways that can withstand fishing conditions, but which a whale could break.

Until such innovations are put to use, PCCS and other organizations have the difficult job of rescuing these massive creatures from twisted lines. Their first step is to photograph the entangled whale by plane and boat and determine where the whale is wrapped, and how extensively. They then use a technique called "kegging," attaching buoys to any trailing line to slow the whale down, though as the group’s website attests, "slowing down a panic-stricken giant is more easily said than done." The rescuers approach in inflatable boats, removing the engines from the water as they draw close so to not risk further harm. They cut the tangled line using hooked knives at the end of long poles and attach a telemetry buoy to the whale, which sends satellite and radio signals that can be used to relocate the animal if more work is needed to free it.

According to PCCS: "The number of whales that sustain serious injury or death from these encounters [both entanglements and ship strikes] may never be known, simply because they are most likely to die far from public view and cannot be counted; however, many more will die than can be rescued. Without significant, rapid improvement in our commercial fishing technology and practices, entanglements will simply continue to a degree that the right whale population cannot withstand. Reversing this outcome is the responsibility of concerned citizens; one that we share with our elected representatives, regulators and with the fishing industry itself."

BRITA BELLI is managing editor of E.

CONTACTS: The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium; Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (508)487-3622 ext. 101; New England Aquarium Global Marine Programs(617)973-5200