Quantcast
Owen Freeman

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.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Popular
Thomas Barwick / DigitalVision / Getty Images

10 Tips for Hosting a Wonderful and Waste-Free Holiday

By Clara Chaisson

For many, the holiday season is a time of plenty. But with all the feasting, the decorations and the gift swapping, it can be easy to go overboard. And for hosts, especially, there's a lot of pressure to make sure guests feel adequately stuffed and the house looks sufficiently bedecked.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Taylor Energy spill seen from space in 2017. SkyTruth

Clean Up 14-Year Oil Spill or Face $40K Daily Fine, Feds Tell Taylor Energy

The U.S. Coast Guard has ordered Taylor Energy Co. to clean and contain a 14-year chronic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or face a fine of $40,000 a day.

Environmentalists had warned about the unrelenting leak for years after the Gulf Restoration Network and the watchdog group SkyTruth discovered oil slicks via satellite imagery while investigating the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Amitabh Bachchan TeachAids / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Indian Cinema Legend Clears Debts of 1,398 Farmers

Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan said he has "taken care" of 1,398 farmers by wiping out more than $560,000 (40m rupees) of their debt, BBC News reported.

"Gratitude leans across to the desire of removing some of the burdens that farmers continue to suffer from ... and the inner peace it generates when the desired is completed," the 76-year-old Indian film legend wrote in a blog post on Tuesday.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
A Chinese sturgeon, one of a handful on display, is seen at the Chinese Sturgeon Aquarium in Hong Kong. Shankar S. / Flickr

After 140 Million Years, Chinese Sturgeons May Soon Be Extinct

By Jason Bittel

More than 16 feet long and weighing up to 1,100 pounds, Chinese sturgeons are among the world's largest freshwater fish. They're big and they're ancient. According to fossil records, they've been swimming China's Yangtze, Qiantang, Minjiang and Pearl Rivers since the time of the dinosaurs.

And now they're on the brink of oblivion, having disappeared from all of their former range except for small portions of the Yangtze.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Health
Dewayne Johnson, the first man to bring Monsanto to trial over Roundup and win, now faces an appeal. JOSH EDELSON / AFP / Getty Images

A Roundup Trial Roundup

Tuesday was a big news day for the growing legal movement to hold Monsanto accountable for selling a widely-used weed killer that plaintiffs say gave them or their loved ones cancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
"Nature's heterogeneity and biodiversity are at the epicenter of my thankfulness and happiness. Here, deep within a saline wetland, morning light shines through the dew covered understory revealing an orb-weaver's web." Dakota Altman

'Everything Is Interconnected': Photo of Radiant Spider Web Wins EcoWatch Contest

EcoWatch is excited to announced the winner of our first-ever Gratitude Photo Contest. Participants sent us their best shots of what in nature they were most thankful for this Thanksgiving.

Our three amazing judges—Greenpoint Innovations founder Stephen Donofrio, marine scientist Gaelin Rosenwaks and documentary photographer Marc Bryan-Brown—picked their favorites from more than 70 photo entries of breathtaking landscapes, incredible wildlife and majestic waterways.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Food
Health agencies say avoid romaine lettuce as they investigate an E. coli outbreak. Agricultural Resources Service / USDA

E. Coli Outbreak Linked to Romaine Lettuce

If you're hosting Thanksgiving tomorrow, be sure to leave romaine lettuce off the menu! The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are warning everyone to avoid the classic salad green until investigators can pinpoint the exact source of an E. coli outbreak that has sickened 32 people in 11 states.

The FDA advised Americans to stop eating romaine and to toss any that's left in the fridge. Restaurants and retailers should also stop serving it until more is known.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Map of damage to the town of Paradise from the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history. NASA / JPL-Caltech

Heavy Rain Could Trigger Mudslides in Fire-Weary California

Northern California, which is already reeling from the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, is now bracing for heavy rainfall this week.

The forecasted rain could bring much-needed relief for the firefighters battling the Camp Fire in Butte County. However, it could also bring new hazards due to possible ash, mud and debris flows triggered by the rain.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!