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Whale Crossing
May 26, 1999
Whale killed by ship
National Marine Fisheries Service

The world’s most endangered whale suffers a substantial number of deaths from collisions with large ships. But a new international law is drawing a line in the ocean to protect the northern right whale from watery road-kills.

"The primary traffic is freighters that move at about 22 miles an hour, so they need a lot of time to slow down," explains Jared Blumenfeld, Director of the International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW)’s Habitat Program. "The ships can’t see very far in front of them so they need electronic information. That is one of the reasons the mandatory ship reporting system will work so well."

A Whale of Trouble

Northern right whale

According to IFAW, the northern right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) population numbers approximately 300 animals. Their habitat, once extending across the Atlantic, is now reduced to a small area in the western North Atlantic off the eastern coasts of the United States and Canada.

Whalers hunted the right whales to near extinction until the League of Nations banned the hunting practice in 1935. Named the right whale because they were "the right whale to hunt," the whales swim slowly at the surface-- making them an easy target for hunters then and an inadvertent obstacle for large ships today.

Despite 60 years of protection, the population has not recovered. No one knows why, but scientists have identified a number of threats to their recovery:

  • Collisions with ships: According to scientists at the New England Aquarium an estimated 50% of documented right whale deaths result from ship collisions; fifteen deaths since 1972 and eight deaths since 1990.

  • Entanglement in fishing gear: The Center for Coastal Studies whose rapid response team rescues entangled whales off New England, reports that between 48 and 78 percent of right whales display scars from injuries obtained during escape, and several animals have died while trying to escape.

  • Depression of reproductive rates: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) reports that the current right whale population may be descendants of only four females, resulting in an increased infant mortality and a reduced resistance to disease. The mean time for a cow to birth is three to five years.

Maritime Law

The New England Aquarium has operated a right whale "Early Warning System" since 1994. Conservationists routinely conduct aerial surveys, which are often supplemented by sightings by the US Navy , the U.S. Coast Guard, and local harbor pilots.

Ship at sea

The observations are communicated to vessels by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) , a department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with goodwill assistance from the Coast Guard and the Navy. But regulations have not required that ships check in for mandatory updates upon entering critical waters of the right whale.

Agencies such as NOAA and the Coast Guard, along with the International Fund For Animal Welfare teamed up to urge the United States government to support the mandatory ship reporting procedure. President Clinton approved the measure and the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization adopted the reporting system in December 1998.

The mandatory ship reporting system is effective on 1 July 1999. Ships of 300 gross tons or greater, except for certain government ships, will be required to notify the Coast Guard when entering critical right whale habitats. The U.S. Coast Guard will then provide information regarding current right whale sightings and precautionary measures. Violators of the reporting requirements could be subject to penalties under the Ports and Waterways Safety Act.

Surveilling Sea Sounds

Right whales swim slowly near the surface and produce a large distinctive V-shaped blow when they breathe. This makes them visible to aircraft, the principal current source of sighting data.

Floating acoustic buoy

But visual identification can be unreliable at night and during periods of poor visibility, so researchers at MIT Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Program and elsewhere are developing floating acoustic buoys that can locate whales by listening to them when they talk to each other. They hope to test the prototype buoys this summer and compare their data with sighting reports.

The whales produce "a very low frequency type of call," says MIT’s Ken Ekstrom, "so they propagate a great distance." The researchers expect to detect whales up to five miles away from the buoys, depending on background noise levels. Filtering out the vocalizations from the noise of storms or passing vessels represents an engineering challenge, adds Cliff Goudey, Director of the program’s Center for Fisheries Engineering Research (CFER) . "But in a quiet situation, for instance, at night at dark when there isnāt a lot of vessel traffic, we hope to have very good detection rate," Goudey says.

The listening stations consist of a submerged hydrophone, electronics for filtering the vocalizations from other ocean sounds, and a radio or digital transmitter. "They are all off the shelf components," explains Goudey. "Itās a very straightforward application of state of the art materials."

As well as helping to protect the whales, the researchers say the passive listening devices will also help to study them. "Studying whales by being out in boats probably has an influence on the whales and alters their normal behavior," suggests Goudey. "A passive listening buoy like this is pretty much non-intrusive to the whale itself. It probably represents a more responsible way of studying whales than sending vessels out there chasing them around."

Whale Watching

Scientists say the new reporting system will provide unprecedented data on ship movements that will be invaluable to future efforts to save the right whale. Scientific research will also contribute to those efforts. In addition to acoustic surveillance, a system of satellites that monitors ocean temperatures could serve as a predictive modeling system. "Right whales eat copepod seaweed," explains IFAW’s Blumenfeld. "And that seaweed only lives in certain temperature waters. So if you can get real time satellite data, you can see where the copepods are."

"I think we need to look down the road at habitat studies," said Gregory Silber, a marine mammal biologist with NMFSās Office of Protected Resources. "We need to look at things like contaminants, habitat degradation, coastal development, and I think reproductive studies need to be done."

Worth the Effort

"Right whales are priceless," reminds Blumenfeld. "You can’t put a price on a beautiful animal like that and I think future generations would want us to save this species. They have been made extinct in other places of the world, and we need to make sure this population survives."

Silber shares the sentiment. "I believe that every species thatās in the ocean is a critical link to every other," he said. The loss of this species not only would be a poor statement on humanity, but I think it would effect the ecology of the ocean."

Elsewhere on the web:

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The Right Whale News

International Fund For Animal Welfare

The Center for Coastal Studies, based in Provincetown, MA

WhaleNet, based at Wheelock College, Boston, MA

The U.S. Coast Guard

The U.N.’s International Maritime Organization

The New England Aquarium

MIT Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Program

produced by Rogene M. Eichler West

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