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Noble Marine 2022 SW - LEADERBOARD

Deep dive into whale conservation

by Damon Gannon, Sailors for the Sea 19 Mar 17:13 UTC 17 June 2022
Ship strikes are one of the leading causes of death for North Atlantic right whales. © EcoHealth Alliance NOAA permit #594-1759

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with a fellow whale biologist and sailor, Dr. Michael Moore, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the director of the institution's Marine Mammal Center.

He has a rather unique background, being both a veterinarian and a marine biologist. Among other things, he and his research team focus on the biology and conservation of North Atlantic right whales, one of the rarest large whale species on the planet.

His academic background and research experience give him a unique perspective on the problem of human-caused mortality of right whales. He shares his insights in a new book, We Are All Whalers: The Plight of Whales and Our Responsibility.

Much of the book and our conversation focused on right whales, which in the 1930s were the first large whales to be protected from whaling in the U.S. Unlike most other large whale species, North Atlantic right whales have not recovered significantly. North Atlantic right whales suffer lethal and sublethal trauma from collisions with vessels and from entanglement in fishing gear used in lobster and crab fisheries. Over the past 15 years or so, marine ecologists have learned that warming ocean waters related to climate change are affecting the abundance and location of their preferred food, shrimp-like crustaceans called copepods.

Here is Part 1 of our conversation:

Damon Gannon: I really thought We are All Whalers was a great read with an important message. For me, knowing a lot of the players and the places that you write about, the book brought me back to that part of the world where I started off my career. So that was a lot of fun. But I think anyone would find this a fascinating read, and an important one.

A lot of what you talk about is the conservation challenge of North Atlantic right whales. To start off, can you just describe what a right whale looks like and how it behaves?

Michael Moore: You know, it's hard to give you a comparison. There's nothing quite like them. They are generally dark-skinned, sometimes with white patches, especially on the belly. It's really the only large whale in our region without a dorsal fin. Sperm whales lack a dorsal fin but they have a hump that kind of looks like a fin. If you look at the head of a North Atlantic right whale, you see crusty, thickened patches of skin called callosities, which are inhabited by whale lice—crustaceans that live in the crevices of these patches— and each of those patches are unique to the individual. You can photograph and actually match one photograph to another of the same individual, often years apart. Doing this gives a wonderful catalog opportunity for studying the life histories of individual animals: whether it had calves, who is that calf. If you're directly in front of or behind a surfacing North Atlantic right whale, you'll see a V-shaped blow..

DG: And they are really large, stocky whales, aren't they?

MM: It looks like an 18-wheeler surfacing in front of you.

DG: It's kind of a strange name. Why are they the "right" whales?

MM: Whalers described them as the right whale because they were profitable and relatively easy to kill since they were slower, and they also floated when they died. Baleen was used for all kinds of industrial and display uses; the sorts of things we'd use plastic for today. And so, in many ways, this is an organic plastic material, used for corset loops and umbrella stays and collar stiffeners and springs...all kinds of industrial uses for it. So the baleen was very, very valuable.

DG: North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered with a population numbering around 330. That number moves a little bit. I don't know the current estimate. Is that still about what the number is?

MM: Now, it depends on who you talk to. But the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, which is managed out of the New England Aquarium, does an annual report card where they do all the math in that regard. And their most recent number as of November 2021 was 336. It was 356, I think it was, 12 months earlier. Essentially, up until 2010, there was a one- to two-percent net rise of the population on an annual basis since 1990 or thereabouts, when there were around 250. So, it was going OK. They weren't doing as well as the southern right whale species, which is down south of the equator, circumpolar in the Southern Ocean and southern continents where they breed. Southern rights were knocked down to a similar few hundred and now they're at 20,000 or better. The difference being that with regards to human-caused trauma, 90 percent of the human population lives in the northern hemisphere. And so trauma from vessels and fishing gear is way less in the south. That has allowed that species to recover substantially, whereas the North Atlantic right whale is still struggling desperately.

DG: Often, when discussing endangered animals, we say 'if only we had better science, if we knew more about the species' ecology, we would be able to come up with better conservation strategies to save them.' That's not so much the case with right whales, is it?

MM: Well, it is and it isn't. We never know enough to completely understand what's going on. But we do know enough to know what shouldn't be happening anymore, and this is a complicated way of answering your question. We're still finding things that are valuable to us, like where they go. But certainly, the fundamentals of the good and the bad of North Atlantic right whales has been well established by now. We know they calve in the southeast US, off Georgia and Florida primarily, they feed in the more temperate zone from New Jersey all the way to Newfoundland, and that they usually have a calf every three years if things are going well. But if they suffer too much trauma or there's not enough food, then that'll end up being delayed or totally canceled in terms of whether they're going to be fit to get pregnant and have a calf or not—to the point where we recently discovered that about half of the adult females haven't ever calved.

So I think it's fair to say that every year we learn new stuff, but we know enough to do the fundamentals, which is we need to figure out how to avoid getting them entangled in fishing gear and how to avoid them getting hit by ships. Those are the two hammers that are pounding at this animal.

In Part II of the conversation, we discuss how Moore has used sailboats in his research and things you can do to help North Atlantic right whales.

Use your voice to help North Atlantic right whales. Tell your federal government officials to take immediate action to protect North Atlantic right whales, before they are gone forever.

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