Scientists say to avoid species extinction and rebuild their population, fewer than one North Atlantic right whale per year can be lost to human-caused mortality or serious injury. Entanglement in fishing lines or being struck by a vessel are the two main causes of human-induced death in the world’s most endangered great whale species.
After years of progress and cooperation with the shipping industry, vessel strikes again appear to be on the rise, with vessels ignoring speed restrictions imposed where right whales have been spotted. The number of whale entanglements also are headed in the wrong direction, with four confirmed entanglements in U.S. waters this year, including three recent sightings in New Jersey and Massachusetts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said that a 60-80% drop in the number of whale mortalities is needed, but combined with stalled progress on a plan to reduce fishing impacts, the future for this whale again appears bleak.
If trends continue, the North Atlantic right whale could be the first great whale in modern history to go extinct, and those in the animal rights and conservation communities say the time to act is now.
“We’ve done the research, we have the evidence. The time is now to implement it,” said Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the New England Aquarium. Her specialty is assessing human impacts on whales and ways to address those threats. But there is frustration over a process led by NOAA that seems to only respond to litigation.
Conservation groups including the Humane Society of the United States, the Conservation Law Foundation, Center for Biological Diversity and others sued NOAA in 2018 over its permitting of a lobster fishery that was killing right whales, a federally listed endangered species.
That resulted in a process many in the conservation and animal rights community thought would finally bear fruit, with an industry-backed plan brokered by a federal advisory committee last April that would have cut the number of vertical lines on lobster pots and other fishing gear by 60% overall, including a 50% cut in Maine, and 30% in Massachusetts.
Maine, which has more than 10 times as many lines in the water as any other state in New England, subsequently pulled out of the agreement citing what it termed serious flaws in the data used in the take reduction plan and saying NOAA’s analysis showed that the Maine lobster fishery was the least likely cause of injury and death. But the reversal, many say, was the result of political pressure over the economic consequences of the plan to Maine lobstermen.
“It’s so frustrating to me. There’s all these behind-the-scenes forces that are concerned about their economic interests, but don’t take seriously the risk of extinction to the species,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for the Humane Society and a member of the whale take team. Young was the sole vote against the plan because she felt it didn’t go far enough.
“Nothing in this scenario of how these whales are dying spells anything but disaster,” Young said. “For a nation as rich as ours to allow a major whale species to go extinct on our watch is deplorable.”
In August, federal Judge James Boasberg, ruling on the CLF and Humane Society suit, ordered NOAA to do the analysis and develop a plan that meets Endangered Species Act strictures of virtually no right whale fatalities by the lobster fishery. Hearings will take place at regional fishery management councils and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission over the winter to meet a deadline of May 31, 2021.
“Implementation is the last step, the critical step,” Knowlton said. “If the governments (of Canada and the U.S.) don’t do that, the extinction pathway will continue to head in a bad direction.”
Researchers believe at least two of the four entangled whales seen in U.S. waters this year, a 19-year-old female and her 4-year-old son, are likely dead or soon will be.
“I hope this whale succumbs sooner rather than later,” Knowlton said of the 4-year-old. “Nothing can be done to save it.”
When it was photographed in July swimming in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence, it was unencumbered. But in four short months, #4680 was on the verge of death.
Known only as #4680 in the right whale identification database overseen by the staff at the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, this juvenile was last seen by a whale watch vessel on Oct. 12 off the coast of New Jersey. Two ropes were wrapped tightly across its head, embedded into the tissue, Knowlton said. They appeared to be thicker lines used on offshore lobster traps or Canadian snow crab pots, said Knowlton, who couldn’t tell whether the 35-foot whale was dragging lobster or crab pots attached to the line. From photographs, it appeared emaciated with big white lesions on its head and a large open wound in one shoulder.
“It’s a sad story for this whale,” Knowlton said.
But one that is becoming distressingly commonplace.
The mother of #4680 is well known in the right whale research community as Dragon, the 19-year-old mother of three. She was last seen in February off Nantucket with a buoy lodged near the tip of her mouth. It spoke of a potentially gruesome death for this young whale. Encased in blubber, right whales would overheat, if not for a pulpy strip of tissue in the roof of their mouth that is filled with blood vessels. When a right whale opens its mouth, air and cold water rush over the tissues cooling the blood.
But with her mouth propped open, that tissue was constantly exposed to icy water, and Dragon was likely hypothermic, Knowlton said. She appeared to be painfully thin, her rolls of blubber replaced by sunken hollows filled with orange lice that proliferate on sick and dying animals.
Since 2017, 31 right whales have died due to human causes, 21 in Canada and 10 in the US, not counting the most recent entangled whales. Eleven others have been found swimming with serious injuries from being struck by a ship or entanglement. With only around 400 North Atlantic right whales left, including fewer than 100 females, extinction is a real possibility and the animal rights and conservation groups worry that the inability of Canada and the U.S. to stop the deaths may guarantee it.
Knowlton had some hope that fishermen and researchers would come up with the technical solutions that might make it hard for right whales, and other whale species, to become bound up in lines and gear. Gear research has led to at least three prototypes for buoys that are anchored to the bottom and surface only when they receive a signal from the fishing boat. One uses a spool, one an inflatable bag, and the third a trap-door release mechanism.
“I think they have made great strides,” said Knowlton, who said the technology is getting progressively less complicated and more affordable.
Knowlton also is working with South Shore lobstermen who developed a weak sleeve that resembles the toy known as a Chinese finger trap, with ropes locked into either end. The sleeve breaks apart at 1,700 pounds of pressure, the level of force Knowlton’s research has shown whales can exert to successfully escape from lines. Knowlton is testing the sleeve using a computer model developed by the oil and gas industry. She is modeling the forces exerted by currents, heavy strings of traps, and by the whales themselves on lines of varied diameter and strength using combinations of weak sleeves to evaluate how they perform under the varied environmental conditions that exist in the lobster fishery.
The Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association is also dispensing 700 coils of 1,700-pound breaking strength line to lobstermen to test, said MLA Executive Director Beth Casoni.
“Our goal is to get all vertical lines transitioned to 1,700 pound lines,” Casoni said. These lines are colored red as a result of research by retired Aquarium scientist Scott Kraus.
Casoni said the right whale problem is an international issue that will take time and effort to fix. She said lobstermen want to solve the problem and hate seeing animals like Dragon and her calf suffer.
“Nobody wants to see that. Fishermen don’t want that,” she said.
Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.