411 North Atlantic Right Whales Remain: This Solution Could Help
Many fish, marine mammals and seabirds that inhabit the world's oceans are critically endangered, but few are as close to the brink as the North Atlantic right whale ( Eubalaena glacialis). Only about 411 of these whales exist today, and at their current rate of decline, they could become extinct within our lifetimes.
From 1980 through about 2010, conservation efforts focused mainly on protecting whales from being struck by ships. Federal regulations helped reduce vessel collisions and supported a slight rebound in right whale numbers.
But at the same time, growing numbers of right whales died after becoming entangled in lobster and crab fishing gear. This may have happened because fishing ropes became stronger, and both whales and fishermen shifted their ranges so that areas of overlap increased. Entanglement has caused 80 percent of diagnosed mortalities since 2010, and the population has taken a significant downward turn.
This comes after a millennium of whaling that decimated the right whale population, reducing it from perhaps between 10,000 to 20,000 to a few hundred animals today. And entanglement deaths are much more inhumane than harpoons. A whaler's explosive harpoon kills quickly, compared to months of drawn-out pain and debilitation caused by seemingly harmless fishing lines. We believe these deaths can be prevented by working with the trap fishing industries to adopt ropeless fishing gear – but North Atlantic right whales are running out of time.
Fishing rope furrowed into the lip of Bayla, right whale #3911.
Michael Moore / NMFS Permit 932-1905-00 / MA-009526 / CC BY-ND
Whalers pursued right whales for centuries because this species swam relatively slowly and floated when dead, so it was easier to kill and retrieve than other whales. By the mid-20th century, scientists assumed they had been hunted to extinction. But in 1980, researchers from the New England Aquarium who were studying marine mammal distribution in the Bay of Fundy off eastern Canada were stunned when they sighted 26 right whales.
Conservation efforts led to the enactment of regulations that required commercial ships to slow down in zones along the U.S. Atlantic coast where they were highly likely to encounter whales, reducing boat strikes. But this victory has been offset by rising numbers of entanglements.
Adult right whales can produce up to an estimated 8,000 pounds of force with a single stroke of their flukes. When they become tangled in fishing gear, they often break it and swim off trailing ropes and sometimes crab or lobster traps.
Lines and gear can wrap around a whale's body, flukes, flippers and mouth. They impede swimming and feeding, and cause chronic infection, emaciation and damage to blubber, muscle and bone. Ultimately these injuries weaken the animal until it dies, which can take months to years.
One of us, Michael Moore, is trained as a veterinarian and has examined many entangled dead whales. Moore has seen fishing rope embedded inches deep into a whale's lip, and a juvenile whale whose spine had been deformed by the strain of dragging fishing gear. Other animals had flippers nearly severed by swimming wrapped in inexorably constricting ropes. Entanglement injuries to right whales are the worst animal trauma Moore has seen in his career.
Even if whales are able to wriggle free and live, the extreme stress and energy demands of entanglement, along with inadequate nutrition, are thought to be preventing females from getting pregnant and contributing to record low calving rates in recent years.
Solutions for Whales and Fishermen
The greatest entanglement risk is from ropes that lobster and crab fishermen use to attach buoys to traps they set on the ocean floor. Humpback and minke whales and leatherback sea turtles, all of which are federally protected, also become entangled.
Conservationists are looking for ways to modify or eliminate these ropes. Rock lobster fishermen in Australia already use pop-up buoys that ascend when they receive sound signals from fishing boats. The buoys trail out ropes as they rise, which fishermen retrieve and use to pull up their traps.
Other technologies are in development, including systems that acoustically identify traps on the seafloor and mark them with "virtual buoys" on fishermen's chart plotters, eliminating the need for surface buoys. Fishermen also routinely use a customized hook on the end of a rope to catch the line between traps and haul them to the surface when the buoy line goes missing.
Transitioning to ropeless technology will require a sea change in some of North America's most valuable fisheries. The 2016 U.S. lobster catch was worth U.S. $670 million. Canadian fishermen landed CA$1.3 billion worth of lobster and CA$590 million worth of snow crab.
Just as no fisherman wants to catch a whale, researchers and conservationists don't want to put fishermen out of business. In our view, ropeless technologies offer a genuine opportunity for whales and the fishing industry to co-exist if they can be made functional, affordable and safe to use.
Switching to ropeless gear is unlikely to be cheap. But as systems evolve and simplify, and production scales up, they will become more affordable. And government support could help fishermen make the shift. In Canada, the federal and New Brunswick provincial governments recently awarded CA$2 million to Canadian snow crab fishermen to test two ropeless trap designs.
Converting could save fishermen money in the long run. For example, California Dungeness crab fishermen closed their 2019 season three months ahead of schedule on April 15 to settle a lawsuit over whale entanglements, leaving crab they could have caught still in the water. Under the agreement, fishermen using ropeless gear will be exempt from future early closures.
A Rebound is Possible
Population trends in the North Atlantic and southern right whale species (estimates for North Atlantic species prior to 1990 are unavailable; southern estimates prior to 1990 on decadal scale). Illegal whaling caused a downturn in the southern species in the 1960s.
The Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act require the U.S. government to conserve endangered species. In Congress, the pending SAVE Right Whales Act of 2019 would provide $5 million annually for collaborative research into preventing mortalities caused by the fishing and shipping industries. And an advisory committee to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently recommended significant fishing protections, focused primarily on reducing the number of ropes in the water column and the strength of the remaining lines.
Consumers can also help. Public outcry over dolphin bycatch in tuna fisheries spurred passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and led to dolphin-safe tuna labeling, which ultimately reduced dolphin mortalities from half a million to about 1,000 animals annually. Choosing lobster and crab products caught without endangering whales could accelerate a similar transition.
North Atlantic right whales can still thrive if humans make it possible. The closely related southern right whale (Eubalaena australis), which has faced few human threats since the end of commercial whaling, has rebounded from just 300 animals in the early 20th century to an estimated 15,000 in 2010.
There are real ways to save North Atlantic right whales. If they go extinct, it will be on this generation's watch.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
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The tiny island nation of Mauritius, known for its turquoise waters, vibrant corals and diverse ecosystem, is in the midst of an environmental catastrophe after a Japanese cargo ship struck a reef off the country's coast two weeks ago. That ship, which is still intact, has since leaked more than 1,000 metric tons of oil into the Indian Ocean. Now, a greater threat looms, as a growing crack in the ship's hull might cause the ship to split in two and release the rest of the ship's oil into the water, NPR reported.
On Friday, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth declared a state of environmental emergency.
France has sent a military aircraft carrying pollution control equipment from the nearby island of Reunion to help mitigate the disaster. Additionally, Japan has sent a six-member team to assist as well, the BBC reported.
The teams are working to pump out the remaining oil from the ship, which was believed to be carrying 4,000 metric tons of fuel.
"We are expecting the worst," Mauritian Wildlife Foundation manager Jean Hugues Gardenne said on Monday, The Weather Channel reported. "The ship is showing really big, big cracks. We believe it will break into two at any time, at the maximum within two days. So much oil remains in the ship, so the disaster could become much worse. It's important to remove as much oil as possible. Helicopters are taking out the fuel little by little, ton by ton."
Sunil Dowarkasing, a former strategist for Greenpeace International and former member of parliament in Mauritius, told CNN that the ship contains three oil tanks. The one that ruptured has stopped leaking oil, giving disaster crews time to use a tanker and salvage teams to remove oil from the other two tanks before the ship splits.
By the end of Tuesday, the crew had removed over 1,000 metric tons of oil from the ship, NPR reported, leaving about 1,800 metric tons of oil and diesel, according to the company that owns the ship. So far the frantic efforts are paying off. Earlier today, a local police chief told BBC that there were still 700 metric tons aboard the ship.
The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.
"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.
While the Mauritian authorities have asked residents to leave the clean-up to officials, locals have organized to help.
"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.
Reuters reported that sugar cane leaves, plastic bottles and human hair donated by locals are being sewn into makeshift booms.
Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.
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There are trillions of microplastics in the ocean — they bob on the surface, float through the water column, and accumulate in clusters on the seafloor. With plastic being so ubiquitous, it's inevitable that marine organisms, such as sharks, will ingest them.
Polyproylene fibers found in one of the sampled sharks. Kristian Parton
Spiny dogfish. NOAA / Wikimedia Commons<p>"There appear to be two routes for these particles to end up in the sharks," Parton said. "The first through their food source [such as] crustaceans. Their prey may already contain these fibers, and consequently it's passed to the shark through bioaccumulation up the food chain. The second pathway is direct ingestion from the sediment. As these sharks feed, they'll often suck up sediment into their mouths, some of this is expelled straight away, although some is swallowed, therefore fibers and particles that may have sunk down into the seabed may be directly ingested from the surrounding sediment as these sharks feed."</p><p>Some sharks only contained a few plastic particles, but others contained dozens. The larger the shark, the more plastic was in it, the findings suggested. The highest number of microplastics was found in an individual bull huss, which had 154 polypropylene fibers inside its stomach and intestines.</p><p>"It's perhaps likely this individual shark had swallowed a larger piece of fishing rope/netting and this has broken down during digestive processes within the shark, and also broken down into smaller pieces during our analysis," Parton said.</p>
Lesser-spotted dogfish caught as bycatch. Kristian Parton<p>While this study only examined the stomach and digestive tracts of demersal sharks, Parton says it's possible that plastic would be present in other parts of the sharks' bodies, such as the liver and muscle tissue. However, more research would be needed to prove this.</p><p>At the moment, there is also limited understanding of how microplastic ingestion would impact a shark's health, although microplastics are known to negatively influence feeding behavior, development, reproduction and life span of zooplankton and crustaceans.</p><p>"If we can show that these fibers contain inorganic pollutants attached to them, then that could have real consequences for these shark species at a cellular level, impacting various internal body systems," Parton said.</p>
Parton in the lab. Kristian Parton<p>This new study demonstrates how pervasive and destructive plastic pollution can be in the marine environment, according to Will McCallum, head of oceans for Greenpeace U.K.</p><p>"Our addiction to plastics combined with the lack of mechanisms to protect our oceans is suffocating marine life," McCallum said in a statement. "Sharks sit on top of the marine food web and play a vital role in ocean ecosystems. Yet, they are completely exposed to pollutants and other human impactful activities. We need to stop producing so much plastic and create a network of ocean sanctuaries to give wildlife space to recover. The ocean is not our dump, marine life deserves better than plastic."</p>
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By Loveday Wright and Stuart Braun
After a Japanese-owned oil tanker struck a reef off Mauritius on July 25, a prolonged period of inaction is threatening to become an ecological disaster.
<div id="bb0a7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e5aefc0fff61ab1aea2f4b03c5399864"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1291765757013983238" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The #oilspill is devastating but I want to honour the community mobilisation at the Mahebourg waterfront today (to… https://t.co/UWFkZFdjdi</div> — Fabiola Monty (@Fabiola Monty)<a href="https://twitter.com/LFabiolaMonty/statuses/1291765757013983238">1596815930.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"Booms are made of nylon mesh filled with #sugarcane straws all hand-stitched by Mauritian volunteers, empty plastic bottles used as buoys," described Mauritian journalist Zeenat Hansrod in a tweet. </p>
How to Tackle Oil Spills<p>The method for tackling oil spills depends on several factors, including the type and amount of oil in question, location and weather conditions.</p><p>"Once the oil comes to shore, the more intensive the cleaning technique. You can risk causing further damage," said Nicky Cariglia, an independent consultant at Marittima, who specializes in marine pollution. </p><p>"If you wanted to remove all traces of oil, the techniques available become increasingly aggressive the less oil that remains. In mangroves, you would have the added risk of causing damage by trampling," Cariglia told DW. Highly sensitive mangrove ecosystems line the Mauritius east coast that is threatened by the current spill.</p><p>Because oil normally has a lower density than water, it floats on the surface of the ocean. This means that for clean-up action to be most effective, it should happen very quickly after a spill, before the oil disperses. </p>
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