Right Whale Extinction
Could Be On Horizon

by Laurie Schreiber

John Bullard. “We don’t have time to waste. The team needs the expertise of the fishing industry to come up with and implement solutions.” Fishermen’s Voice photo

GLOUCESTER, Mass.—If more isn’t done to protect North Atlantic right whales from fishing gear entanglement and ship strikes, the animals could be extinct in a matter of decades, Greater Atlantic Fisheries Regional Office (GARFO) chief John Bullard told the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team (ALWTRT) during a conference call Nov. 30.

Over the past two decades, the team has put in place substantial strategies to reduce the risk of entanglement. That included the elimination of nearly 30,000 miles of rope and fishing gear, associated with fixed gear fisheries, from nearly 32,000 square nautical miles. That work helped increase the right whale population from 270 in 1990 to 480 in 2010.

But in 2017, “A number of deeply troubling events have taken place,” said Bullard. “Despite the take reduction team’s efforts and fishermen’s sacrifices, it appears this work might not be enough.”

That’s because, since April l, 18 right whales have been observed dead in both Canadian and U.S. waters—a nearly 4 percent loss of population.

Eighteen is probably a minimum, said Bullard. And a Northeast Fisheries Science Center report revealed the right whale population has been declining since 2010, down to an estimated 451 whales in 2016. In addition, a New England Aquarium report showed that 85 percent of rights have entanglement scars.

Additional entangled whales were sighted in 2017.

GARFO has been in touch with its Canadian counterparts regarding collaboration on strategies to minimize risks to right whales, Bullard said.

At the same time, he said, “My message to my colleagues in Canada has always been that, for us to ask the industry in the U.S. to do more, two things have to occur. There has to be scientific evidence of a causal relationship between mortalities and actions by our industry, whether it’s shipping or fishing. Secondly, what we ask of our industries has to be fair….I’ve been clear with Canada that they need to take commensurate steps.”

He added, “More needs to be done to save this species from extinction.”

Moving the team into 2018, Bullard said GARFO will form two new sub-groups to begin work in January. One group will investigate the feasibility of using whale release rope with a 1,700-pound breaking strength, and alternative approaches to gear marking. The other will investigate the feasibility of ropeless fishing.

“Guiding questions include, What is the current availability of these technologies? What are the current costs? Are there geographic locations where these technologies would work well and where they wouldn’t work?” Bullard said.

Feasibility reports will be expected with 6-9 months after the sub-groups are convened, he said.

With only five right whale births this year and just over 100 breeding females, the possibility of extinction looms, he said.

“We don’t have time to waste,” he said, adding that the team needs the expertise of the fishing industry to come up with and implement solutions.

According to a presentation by Mike Asaro, marine mammal and sea turtle branch chief for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Region, the U.S. and Canada are currently engaged in a bilateral right whale working group whose goal is to identify areas where both nations can jointly fund research and management efforts.

Findings in 2017, after a five-year review, show that right whales are 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.

Recommendations for the period 2017-2022 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.

• Analyzing the effects of commercial fishing on right whales

Dead right whales found in U.S. waters include:

• A female calf was found April 13 in Cape Cod Bay. Necropsy found evidence of external abrasions, hemorrhaging, and muscle tearing, consistent with blunt force trauma from a vessel strike.

• A sub-adult male in advanced decomposition was found Aug. 6 off Martha’s Vineyard. Necropsy found evidence of recent line entanglement around the insertion of both pectoral flippers, flukes, and on the right lateral body

• An adult female was found Aug. 9 east of Cape Cod. A review of photos showed multiple linear impressions suggesting entanglement.

• Right whale vertebral bones and two skulls were found Nov. 29 washed ashore on East Beach in Chappaquiddick Island, Martha’s Vineyard.

According to a presentation by Peter Corkeron and Richard Pace, with the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, it’s not only mortality from entanglement that matters: Most right whales are entangled at least once, and some several times. The non-lethal costs of entanglement likely affecting calving rates.