Quantcast

What’s Happening to the North Atlantic Right Whale Is Just Plain Wrong

Animals
Owen Freeman

By Jason Bittel

Imagine if safari-goers in Africa came upon an elephant trudging through the brush covered in a tangle of ropes and netting. What if, on closer inspection, they found that the animal's mouth was blocked, preventing it from eating, or that lengths of rope had coiled around and cut into its legs, making every stride a battle? Imagine if the last thing those tourists saw was the elephant disappearing into the forest, dragging a veritable ball and chain of man-made debris behind it.


Unfortunately, this hypothetical scenario comes pretty close to the actual, real-life nightmare suffered on a daily basis by a different creature, the North Atlantic right whale, in its primary habitat off the east coast of the U.S. and Canada.

"It's a horrific animal welfare issue, but because it's out there in the ocean, we generally can't see it," said Francine Kershaw, a scientist with NRDC's Marine Mammal Protection Project.

Fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales remain on Earth, and of that tiny population, 83 percent bear scars from entanglements in fishing gear. Around half of those have been entangled more than once. All in all, entanglement is now the number one cause of death for this species, responsible for 85 percent of all deaths since 2010, which both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the International Union for Conservation of Nature classify as endangered.

Over the past few decades, the North Atlantic right whale had been seeing slow but steady gains, thanks to international efforts to protect critical habitats, move shipping lanes away from the whales, and develop methods to monitor the whales' health. But the population peaked around 2010 and is now in decline. At least 17 of the animals died as a result of entanglements and boat strikes in 2017—nearly twice as many as had died in the previous five years combined.

It gets worse. "It seems the females have been recovering less well than males," said Kershaw. Of the 450 or so animals remaining, fewer than 100 are breeding females. What's more, Kershaw said, females used to live for about 60 to 70 years but are now making it only to around 30 or 40. And whereas they produced a calf every three years in the 1980s, females are now raising a baby whale just about once per decade.

In fact, this year scientists have yet to find a single calf among the entire North Atlantic right whale population. It is possible that the animals are losing their ability to replace their dead. And for such slow-to-mature, slow-to-reproduce animals, a trend like that can go on for only so long. "At this rate of decline, they're estimated to be functionally extinct in approximately 20 years," said Kershaw.

Twenty years. The Simpsons may outlast them.

Are you ready for the good news? We already have a solution on hand to reverse their fate. It's called ropeless gear.

To understand why such a simple, tangible fix could play a key role in boosting the species' numbers, it's important to understand the main cause of right whale entanglements. Various fishing industries employ long, vertical ropes, such as those that connect lobster and crab traps on the ocean floor to buoys at the water's surface. These lines allow fishermen to find their traps—also known as pots—once they've dropped them. When whales run into these lines, their first instinct is to roll, which is how they become ensnared. Sometimes the ropes trap the whales and drown them, but more often the whales break the pots from their moorings and escape—albeit with literally tons of gear in tow. These tethers cut into the animals' skin and force them to spend more calories than normal just to swim. Kershaw points out that some ensnared whales may just starve to death over time as a result.

But attaching traps to long ropes is not the only way for fishermen to find their gear. Ropeless technology provides new methods for locating that equipment without posing threats to the whales. "This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea," said Caroline Good, a marine ecologist and scientific consultant. "This is something that can be implemented and actually is being used right now in some parts of the world."

One method is to tag gear with GPS and then grab it using a grappling hook. In fact, fishermen are already doing this in Florida's golden crab fishery, even in waters up to 800 feet deep. But Good said grappling hooks may be too simplistic to apply in much larger fisheries, like the crab and lobster operations of New England and Canada's Atlantic provinces. For these areas, acoustic retrieval mechanisms probably have the most promise. These systems would allow fishermen to send a signal down to their gear that either triggers the release of a guide rope or the inflation of a buoy to cause the whole kit and caboodle to surface. As Good points out, this technology is not new—it's been used for decades by the military, the oil and gas industry, geologists, and other researchers. "It's just the idea of using it for fisheries that's new," she said.

Of course, a host of issues will need to be sorted out before ropeless gear can be implemented widely. For starters, fishermen will need a new way to know where their colleagues are deploying nets and traps so that they don't accidentally lay another set down on top. Similarly, operators of other fisheries, especially those using trawl nets or dragnets, will need to be looped into the system to keep from inadvertently plowing through the buoy-less gear. And finally, law enforcement will need to find a way to retain access to the submerged gear for inspection.

But these and other issues are solvable, so long as all stakeholders are included in the industry's evolution. "We feel it's very important for this to be done in partnership with the fishing industry," said Kershaw, "and it's imperative that the National Marine Fisheries Service show greater leadership."

Of course, ropeless gear alone can't save the North Atlantic right whale. Kershaw said it's crucial that we continue to push back against the oil and gas industry's use of seismic testing and the U.S. Navy's use of military sonar, as both have been linked to increased stress and negative health effects in whales and other marine mammals. It's also critical that we fight to defend the Marine Mammal Protection Act, under threat by the Trump administration's plan to expand offshore drilling to nearly all American waters, among various other pieces of proposed legislation.

In summation, if we want to save the North Atlantic right whales from going extinct, we'll need to play both the short game and the long. Luckily, the whales may yet have a few tricks up their sleeves too.

Remember how scientists have yet to find a new calf in 2018? It certainly sounds like bad news, but you could also consider it a survival mechanism for the whale females. Or at the very least, the lesser of two scary scenarios.

"The real disaster would be emaciated moms giving birth to calves that they then cannot nurse because they don't have enough fat," Good said. This could lead to the deaths of both the mothers and the calves, which would essentially be the last nail in the coffin. Instead, years without calves may occur when the female whales' bodies save them from the intense energy expenditure required to produce and rear a calf.

"From an evolutionary, long-term standpoint, their bodies know what to do," said Good. In other words, the North Atlantic right whales are doing all they can to keep their present numbers steady. As for their future, it's up to us.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

A verdant and productive urban garden in Havana. Susanne Bollinger / Wikimedia Commons

By Paul Brown

When countries run short of food, they need to find solutions fast, and one answer can be urban farming.

Read More Show Less
Trevor Noah appears on set during a taping of "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" in New York on Nov. 26, 2018. The Daily Show With Trevor Noah / YouTube screenshot

By Lakshmi Magon

This year, three studies showed that humor is useful for engaging the public about climate change. The studies, published in The Journal of Science Communication, Comedy Studies and Science Communication, added to the growing wave of scientists, entertainers and politicians who agree.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
rhodesj / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Cities around the country are considering following the lead of Berkeley, California, which became the first city to ban the installation of natural gas lines in new homes this summer.

Read More Show Less
Rebecca Burgess came up with the idea of a fibersheds project to develop an eco-friendly, locally sourced wardrobe. Nicolás Boullosa / CC BY 2.0

By Tara Lohan

If I were to open my refrigerator, the origins of most of the food wouldn't be too much of a mystery — the milk, cheese and produce all come from relatively nearby farms. I can tell from the labels on other packaged goods if they're fair trade, non-GMO or organic.

Read More Show Less
A television crew reports on Hurricane Dorian while waves crash against the Banana River sea wall. Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

Some good news, for a change, about climate change: When hundreds of newsrooms focus their attention on the climate crisis, all at the same time, the public conversation about the problem gets better: more prominent, more informative, more urgent.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) met with Bill Gates on Nov. 7 to discuss climate change and ways to address the challenge. Senator Chris Coons

The U.S. Senate's bipartisan climate caucus started with just two members, a Republican from Indiana and a Democrat from Delaware. Now it's up to eight members after two Democrats, one Independent and three more Republicans joined the caucus last week, as The Hill reported.

Read More Show Less
EPA scientists survey aquatic life in Newport, Oregon. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing to significantly limit the use of science in agency rulemaking around public health, the The New York Times reports.

Read More Show Less
A timelapse video shows synthetic material and baby fish collected from a plankton sample from a surface slick taken off Hawaii's coast. Honolulu Star-Advertiser / YouTube screenshot

A team of researchers led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration didn't intend to study plastic pollution when they towed a tiny mesh net through the waters off Hawaii's West Coast. Instead, they wanted to learn more about the habits of larval fish.

Read More Show Less