Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

411 North Atlantic Right Whales Remain: This Solution Could Help

Animals
411 North Atlantic Right Whales Remain: This Solution Could Help

The entangled North Atlantic right whale in this photo was spotted approximately one mile off Crescent Beach, Florida; researchers were able to disentangle the whale the next day.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission / NOAA Research Permit # 594-1759

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.


NOAA

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.

Deadly Encounters

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.

Michael Moore / data from Pace et al., 2017 / North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium / International Whaling Commission / CC BY-ND

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.

Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds, like this inland silverside fish, can pass on health problems to future generations. Bill Stagnaro / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 3.0

By Brian Bienkowski

Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declares victory during the Labor Party Election Night Function at Auckland Town Hall on Oct. 17, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. Hannah Peters / Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister who has emerged as a leader on the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, has won a second term in office.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?

Read More Show Less
A woman holds a handful of vitamin C. VO IMAGES / Getty Images

By Laura Beil

Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."

Read More Show Less
Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

Support Ecowatch