Right Whale Deaths a Crisis for Population Recovery

by Laurie Schreiber

A floating dead North Atlantic right whale. The whale deaths are caused by many factors. Courtesy Northeast Fisheries Science Center

NORFOLK, Va.—It was a bad summer for the North Atlantic right whale.

According to a press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), since June 7, elevated North Atlantic right whale mortalities occurred, primarily in Canada. The deaths were declared an “unusual mortality event,” defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response.”

“A total of 15 confirmed dead stranded whales (12 in Canada; 3 in the U.S.), and five live whale entanglements in Canada have been documented to date,” NOAA said. “An additional whale stranded in the U.S. in April of this year prior to the start of the UME bringing the annual total to 16 confirmed dead stranded whales (12 in Canada; 4 in the U.S.)”

According to NOAA, the most recent estimate of the population is about 458 whales, which is up from around 270 in 1990, but has shown a consistent decline since the 2010 estimate of 483. “With so few animals in the population, each one is important to the recovery of the species,” the release said.

Speaking to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) at its Oct. 16 meeting, NOAA Greater Atlantic Regional Administrator John Bullard called the losses of the past summer “a crisis.”

NOAA has reached out to Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Bullard said, in a joint effort to understand causes and to decide what actions to take.

Necropsies show that most of the deaths were caused by blunt trauma associated with ship strikes, said Bullard. Some whales were entangled by snow crab gear.

“The Canadians have acted very quickly to establish speed restrictions zones,” he said. “They’ve enforced penalties on vessels exceeding the limits in those zones. They’ve also very quickly, by our standards, imposed restrictions closing the snow crab season.”

Joint action is the best approach, he said.

“We’ve explained that the way we have operated, we think successfully in the United States, is through the take reduction team process,” Bullard said.

Signification actions taken through that process, he said, include the removal of 30,000 linear miles of line from the paths of whales, and an increase from about 5,000 square miles to 25,000 square miles of protected areas.

“Those are significant achievements negotiated through the take reduction team process,” he said.

Bullard said that two conditions that need to be fulfilled in a joint effort is the determination of scientifically proven casual relationships between whale mortality and the behavior of the shipping and fishing industries; and a “fair contribution” by the industries.

“That fair contribution needs to be determined by whether it’s fair in the comparison of the lobster industry versus shipping industry, and fair between the U.S. industry versus the Canadian industry,” he said.

Once those conditions are met, he said, “It’s my belief that industry will step up to the plate.”

Up to now, Bullard said there have been few restrictions on Canadian industry with regard to right whale movements.

“But that’s understandable because it’s only recently that the whales have moved north in search of food,” he said.

Ideally, he said, the steps that industry has taken to date would have continued the gradual growth that the right whale population experienced up until a few years ago.

“But over the last three, four, five years, this population has unfortunately been in decline, and then we had this disaster this past summer,” he said. He said that, while Canada has been taking quick action, “I think that more is going to be required of us as well. What form that will take, I’m not sure, whether it’s removal of more vertical lines or whether it will take the form of looking at the strength of the lines that are already in the water. But I think the best way that worked for us is through the TRT process, relying on the wisdom of the industry.”

According to a NOAA press release, 12 dead endangered North Atlantic right whales were found floating in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. The deaths account for nearly 3 percent of the total population. In addition, there were four confirmed live right whale entanglements, two of which were disentangled. In U.S. waters, at least one right whale died from a ship strike and two other carcasses were spotted this year.

“These recent mortalities and entanglements, particularly the high numbers in Canada, have experts in both countries concerned for the future of this species,” the release said.

In July 2016, NOAA’s five-year review recommended that North Atlantic right whales should continue to be listed as endangered, and confirmed that they were experiencing a low rate of reproduction, longer calving intervals, declining population abundance, continued mortality from vessel and fishing gear interactions, changes in prey availability, and increased transboundary movement and risk.

The review recommended actions to help the species recover. Some of the recommendations are already underway:

• Designating a dedicated Right Whale Recovery Coordinator in the Greater Atlantic Region to focus efforts on recovery. Diane Borggaard, a biologist with 20 years of experience in species recovery, took on that role.

• Convening a new Greater Atlantic Region North Atlantic Right Whale Recovery Team, a group of experts in whale research and management that will coordinate closely with the Southeast Region’s Implementation Team.

• Collaborating with U.S./Canadian transboundary working group to reduce ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. NOAA held several meetings with its counterparts at Fisheries and Oceans Canada to discuss gear modifications, gear markings, and ship speed regulations.

• Convening a bilateral work group with Canada to focus on addressing science and management gaps impeding recovery of right whales in U.S. and Canadian waters. The group’s first meeting was held in September.

Additional recommendations include:

• Developing a strategy for understanding the energetic stressors on right whales including the effect of chronic, sublethal entanglement on overall and reproductive health and the effects of changes in environmental conditions and prey availability

• Developing a long-term, cross-regional plan for monitoring right whale population trends and habitat use.

• Prioritizing funding for a combination of acoustic, aerial, and shipboard surveys of right whales that can be used to understand right whale presence in near real time.

• Evaluating the effectiveness of the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan and the Ship Speed Rule to determine whether it may be necessary to modify or extend these protections for right whales.

• Reviewing the effects of commercial fishing operations on right whales.

In August, Canadian Minister of Transport Marc Garneau and Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Dominic LeBlanc issued a statement that said, “There is evidence that the North Atlantic right whales have been increasingly present in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in recent years.”

In response, the Canadian government implemented measures that included:

• A temporary mandatory slow-down for vessels of 20 metres (65 feet) or more in length. Speed must be reduced to a maximum of 10 knots when traveling in the western Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Quebec north shore to just north of Prince Edward Island. Vessels under 20 meters were asked to respect the speed reduction.

• To help prevent entanglements, the Snow Crab Fishing Area 12 in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence was closed, and other fixed gear fisheries such as rock and toad crab fisheries were restricted to fish in shallow water or had a delayed opening.

• The Canadian government invested $1.5 billion in its Oceans Protection Plan. As part of the plan to protect marine mammals from the effects of shipping, including collisions and noise pollution, researchers are working to locate and track marine mammals in high vessel traffic areas and provide this information to mariners.

• Launched LetsTalkWhales.ca, an online public engagement that asks Canadians and stakeholders about proposed recovery measures to help the North Atlantic right whale, the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga and the Southern Resident killer whale.

• Issued a notice to the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf of St. Lawrence asking fishermen to watch for whales and to report sightings.

• Broadcast notices on the marine radio system to request shipping and fishing industries be on alert for whales.

• Working with partners to patrol the coast to monitor and assess reports of dead or distressed whale sightings.

• Continuing surveillance flights to confirm positions of live right whales continues in the Gulf.

• Provide $56,000 toward the Whales Habitat and Listening Experiment (WHaLE) to support the development of a real-time whale alert system for mariners.

In a related development, in July, Joe Howlett, a member of a non-governmental organization Campobello Whale Rescue, died while taking part in a rescue operation to successfully disentangle a North Atlantic right whale off the coast of New Brunswick.