What’s Happening to the North Atlantic Right Whale Is Just Plain Wrong
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.
- Scientists Haven't Seen a Single North Atlantic Right Whale Calf ... ›
- 640,000 Metric Tons of Ghost Gear Enters Oceans Each Year ›
- Whale's Tragic Death by Plastic Bags a Reminder of a Global Crisis ›
A grim new assessment of the world's flora and fungi has found that two-fifths of its species are at risk of extinction as humans encroach on the natural world, as The Guardian reported. That puts the number of species at risk near 140,000.
- Climate Crisis Could Cause a Third of Plant and Animal Species to ... ›
- World Leaders Urged to 'Act Now' to Save Biodiversity - EcoWatch ›
- Bumblebees Face Extinction From the Climate Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- Plant Extinction Is Happening 500x Faster Than Before the Industrial ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
As human activity transforms the atmosphere, flowers are changing their colors.
- The Best Plants to Attract Pollinators, by Region - EcoWatch ›
- Corals Turn Bright Neon in Last-Ditch Effort to Survive - EcoWatch ›
- Hummingbirds Live in a More Colorful World, Study Confirms ... ›
By Sharon Zhang
Back in March, when the pandemic had just planted its roots in the U.S., President Donald Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do something devastating: The agency was to indefinitely and cruelly suspend environmental rule enforcement. The EPA complied, and for just under half a year, it provided over 3,000 waivers that granted facilities clemency from state-level environmental rule compliance.
A rare celestial event was caught on camera last week when a meteoroid "bounced" off Earth's atmosphere and veered back into space.
- Asteroid Could Strike Earth Before Election Day But Won't Cause ... ›
- Water May Have Originated on Earth, Study Finds - EcoWatch ›
By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>