World Wildlife Day: Lowest North Atlantic right whale calving season in 15 years intensifies need for solutions

North Atlantic right whales have made headlines lately, and not just because they’re spending time off the coast of Cape Cod. Sadly, reports about the endangered whales have focused on the news that birth rates are now below the mortality rate – indicating population decline. Just three calves were born this winter, the lowest rate in at least 15 years.

A birth rate lower than the mortality rate means that not enough calves are being born to replace the ones that are dying. A likely factor in the decrease of births is the whales’ difficulty in finding reliable food sources. Without adequate fat storage, female right whales are giving birth every seven or so years instead of the normal rate of every three years.

This is troubling for any wildlife species, but especially so for the North Atlantic right whale, of which scientists say just 524 or so remain. (100 are breeding females.)

The recent designation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument – the first of its kind along the Atlantic seaboard – may help provide these whales with more reliable food sources. Science shows the monument area to be rich with marine wildlife, and with the 4,913 square miles protected from most industrial activity, undisturbed populations of plankton and copepods could help these whales in the long run.

Restoring food sources, though, is a long game, that faces a tougher trajectory as the ocean is becoming more and more crowded and temperatures are rising. With right whales moving around more often in search of food, they are at increased risk of facing their two largest (human-caused) threats: becoming entangled in fishing gear and being hit by a ship.

Ship strikes

Right whales tend to swim close to the surface, making them potential targets for ships that are moving quickly and/or don’t see the whales. The good news is that mortality rates from ship strikes are no longer increasing (even as ship traffic increases) after regulations were put into place requiring ships to decrease their speed in certain areas frequented by right whales during certain times of year. The bad news is that ship strikes are still a leading cause of death for right whales – averaging about one per year.

Fishing gear entanglements

Approximately four to five right whales die each year due to fishing gear entanglements, making it the leading cause of death for the species. In September 2016, Whale 3694 died of “chronic entanglement.” This death was even more heartbreaking than usual since she was of breeding age. It remains unclear whose fishing gear – or even which type of fishery – was responsible for the whale’s death.

Thankfully, there are groups working to understand which types of gear are most responsible for the deaths, and how changes in material and/or flexibility could help pose less of a risk for right whales. The Marine Mammal Commission is focusing its 2017 annual meeting on right whales; New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life has a research program aimed at finding solutions; other groups like the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and the Center for Coastal Studies – among many others – are working together to get right whales back on track toward population growth.

It’s worth noting that scientists are also working to identify other factors that could be at play to explain this year’s dramatically low number of calves, such as population-wide illness, pollution issues, or a genetic dysfunction. Calving season typically goes through the end of this month, so it’s possible we may still see another calf born before the winter is over.

The recent news is disappointing, and with attacks on the Endangered Species Act potentially brewing in congress, it’s critical that this work continues.

Read more about the North Atlantic right whale in our species profile, and share this post on Twitter with the #WorldWildlifeDay hashtag to help us raise awareness. 

Seamounts Species Spotlight: North Atlantic Right Whale

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post is part 2 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

A rare sight in the open ocean, the North Atlantic right whale depends on the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area as a rich feeding zone each year beginning in early spring and lasting through the end of August.

A right whale is easily distinguishable from other species by its large head, two blow holes, and bumpy patches that dot its head and jawline. These rough patches of skin, called callosities, are frequently covered in microscopic sea lice which makes them appear white or orange. Each whale has a different callosities pattern, making individuals easily distinguishable from one another.

These massive critters can grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh in at more than 70 tons by consuming hundreds of pounds of zooplankton and copepods each day, making them one of the largest baleen whale species. Right whales feed using the same method as all baleen whales: by taking in a huge mouthful of water and then pushing the water through its tooth-like baleen plates to catch tiny organisms.

The canyons and seamounts make for a reliable feeding area for the right whale, with high concentrations of food sources, and relatively few human disturbances (most of the canyons and seamounts don’t see much commercial fishing activity).

Despite their impressive size, right whales are very slow and were historically an easy and popular target for human hunters for centuries. Currently, the North Atlantic right whale is listed as endangered on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species.

What’s in a Name?

Back during the heyday of whaling, this graceful creature was the “right” target for a whaler’s harpoon because of its high blubber content and tendency to float on the surface once killed. This is largely thought to be what first caused the population to crash.

Although the species has been internationally protected since 1949 by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the global population is estimated to be hovering between just 300-500 individuals. These low numbers may be in part due to small litter sizes, making it more difficult for populations to rebound – or because of continued accidental human interference in a variety of ways: Just this spring, a baby right whale died after an apparent ship strike near Cape Cod.

Reducing Human Threats

Right whales can frequently find themselves sharing the waters with boats, resulting in seriously harmful or fatal collisions. Off the coast of New England, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has been successful in moving shipping lanes to reduce the risk of commercial vessel strikes; a small 12 degree shift has the potential to reduce strikes by 58 percent. There has also been progress developing technologies to track whale activity that boats can use to help avoid collisions.

In other cases, development projects can pose threats, such as the Deepwater Wind offshore wind farm off Block Island. Deepwater Wind successfully worked with Conservation Law Foundation and other organizations, however, to halt pre-construction activities during times when right whales were known to be in the area.

Another significant threat to the right whale is fishing rope entanglement, which causes lacerations and infections and can make it difficult for the whale to dive and resurface. But, not all hope is lost: recent innovations in fishing rope production hope to minimize rope entanglement threats.

And, NOAA recently moved to significantly expand critical habitat for right whales, meaning federal agencies conducting permitting activities must work with NOAA Fisheries to avoid or reduce impacts on the critical habitat areas.

These actions are hugely helpful for this struggling species, but more will be needed to ensure population recovery. Comprehensive protection of feeding grounds, such as the canyons and seamounts, would be another big step in the right direction. With little fishing activity occurring in these areas, the canyons and seamounts are a relatively safe place for whales to live and eat, away from busier places where threats are higher.

 

Detangling the Risks of Fishing Line for Right Whales

We have many reasons to appreciate the role of modern technology in today’s fisheries. Electronics, equipment upgrades, and other technological advances have led to more efficient, effective, and economical fisheries. However, in the case of modern fishing line, these technological advances have at times come at a serious cost.

Unlike the natural hemp and sisal lines used in decades past, modern fishing line is made from polypropylene, a synthetic material that makes fishing lines and ropes much stronger and more durable than ever before.

Stronger fishing lines may lead to more effective fishing, but when animals – specifically the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale – encounter this fishing line, the risk of entanglement and death is high.

For endangered right whales, stakes are high

This threat to right whales has been the focus of Amy Knowlton, a research scientist at the New England Aquarium, for several years. In an article published by Canada’s CBC on fishing line and the risk for lethal entanglement, Knowlton is quoted saying how this risk is “the biggest threat to these animals right now . . . and unless we can fix it, they could go extinct.”

Knowlton describes how this fishing line frequently gets into their mouths when right whales come in contact with it, which causes them to panic and roll around in an attempt to get free. This motion only causes the line to wrap more around their body, and potentially their flukes, impairing their ability to eat and move.

The frequency of this type of entanglement is alarming, with more than 80 percent of the right whale population showing signs of scarring from synthetic fishing lines. Often, the whales cannot break free from the constraining fishing line because of the incredible strength of the new materials used to make it. This fatal entrapment is a leading cause of death for the already struggling North Atlantic right whale population.

Finding a balanced solution

Knowlton is optimistic about finding solutions for this problem, noting that cooperation and collaboration between the fishing industry and manufacturers could lead to the development of a material for lines and rope that can be strong enough for its intended purpose, but not enough to endanger the lives of right whales.

That all involved parties are invested in finding a solution to this problem exemplifies the foundation of effective ocean management that can be accomplished through a regional ocean plan. While this is just a small micro example of interested parties working together (the regional ocean plan won’t identify solutions for fishing line), on a macro level, these principles can be applied to better management of our ocean resources through collaboration and the use of data. With better information and enhanced coordination, we’re much more likely to be able to effectively identify solutions to these types of challenges.

Ocean planning – a process dedicated to finding solutions to problems before they happen by creating a framework to better anticipate needs, set priorities, and make decisions regarding regional ocean uses – has the potential to positively inform these important conversations.

On a small scale, Knowlton, the fishermen, and the industry are finding a solution to address this specific issue. But on a large scale, a developed ocean plan (that all ocean users abide by) can include acknowledgement of fishing grounds and right whale migration routes and other important factors, allowing for a better mutual understanding of what’s at stake – and pave the way for future decision-making that is better informed and more effective for all involved parties.

Conservation Law Foundation has been actively engaged in the ocean planning process in New England from the beginning, and is committed to ensuring that management measures include safeguards for ocean ecosystems. The Northeast Regional Ocean Plan draft will be available soon, and we all have a responsibility to take part it in it – for the sake of the endangered right whale, our fisheries and coastal economies, and our ocean ecosystems.

Read more about the current status of the Northeast Regional Ocean Plan.

‘You never forget seeing your first whale’ – Zack Klyver of Bar Harbor Whale Watch on the impact of protected areas

Zack Klyver is head naturalist at Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. in Maine. Over his more than 25 years guiding whale watch tours, he says that the experience of seeing a whale for the first time is truly amazing – and is part of what makes Maine so popular to tourists.

Today, Klyver is seeing an ocean that is rapidly industrializing, posing more and more threats to whales – especially the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Watch the clip to see why he thinks protected areas are an important way to sustain the whale population – to help the whales and Maine’s economy.

 

Right Whales and Cashes Ledge: How to Make a Good Thing Last

By Tricia Jedele

In late January, North Atlantic right whales scored a big win when the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) expanded the critical habitat for the endangered whale from 4,500 square nautical miles to 28,000 square nautical miles.

The original area included only a portion of Cape Cod Bay and an area east of Nantucket near the Great South Channel. This major expansion adds almost all of the Gulf of Maine, east to Georges Bank, and south all the way to Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Gulf of Maine expansion includes Cashes Ledge – an area known for its rich biodiversity and abundance of fish and marine mammals and a place that CLF has been fighting to permanently protect for years.

This is great news for the North Atlantic right whale – the world’s most endangered large whale – and for those of us who care about saving it. Expanding the whale’s critical habitat means that federal agencies are thinking more systemically about what the right whale needs not just to survive but to once again thrive – designating not only places where the whales congregate to forage, but also the places that are critical for mating and calving.

This expansion is also a terrific example of ocean use planning in action. Before announcing the final decision, NOAA, through its National Marine Fisheries Service, called for public dialogue and input about the proposed expansion. It also allowed for new information to guide and influence its decisions around how to manage and permit other activities (like clean energy projects or industrial exploration) in the expanded areas going forward.

Critical Habitat is Good; Permanent Protection is Better – and Necessary

Right whale calf and mother

Right whale calf and mother. ©Brian Skerry

According to NOAA, calling an area “critical habitat” means that it contains physical or biological features essential to the conservation of a particular species – and those features may require special management considerations or protection.

Federal agencies looking to issue permits or companies seeking permits have to work with NOAA to avoid or reduce impacts from their activities on critical habitats. But, a critical habitat designation isn’t as protective as it sounds. It’s more like a “caution” sign than a stop sign. The designation doesn’t establish a refuge for the right whale or its food sources. And it doesn’t specifically put the area off limits or dictate that certain activities cannot occur.

For endangered species, functional critical habitat is the key to survival. We understand this concept well on land. One ongoing success story is China’s giant panda. People around the world are working to secure permanent protections for its habitats to ensure survival of the species. The Nature Conservancy, for example, has worked with the Chinese government to protect 27,000 acres of Pingwu County for the benefit of just 10 giant pandas.

Today, approximately 1,800 giant pandas remain worldwide. In comparison, just over 500 individual North Atlantic right whales are struggling to survive. Yet we have failed to to permanently protect even one acre of the habitat it needs to recover.

Considering that we know where some of the areas so critical to the North Atlantic right whale are, we need to ask why we’ve been successful in protecting lands critical for terrestrial species, but we haven’t given this same level of protection – or attention – to marine species. Cashes Ledge, a small area in the Gulf of Maine, is uniformly recognized as a scientific marine treasure, and already closed to most fishing. Permanently protecting this area would have little negative impact – yet the positive impact protection might have on the North Atlantic right whale could mean the difference between the species’ survival or its extinction.

Conservation Law Foundation believes that it is time to embrace the familiar land-based conservation principles and apply them, based on the best available scientific information, to permanently protect some of the most impressive and ecologically important ocean habitats and resources in the North Atlantic.

Dramatically expanding the critical habitat area for North Atlantic right whales was without question a good thing – and so was including Cashes Ledge in that designated area.

Let’s now take a good thing and make it even better by permanently protecting Cashes Ledge. Otherwise, this designation will just be a good thing that wasn’t quite good enough.

Exploring for Oil Off Nova Scotia Threatens Ocean Wildlife and Our Coastal Economy

In New England, witnessing a whale breach the ocean’s surface is an awe-inspiring experience reminding us of the complex and magnificent undersea metropolis that’s just below the surface. Whales ­– humpback, minke, North Atlantic right whales, and more – are iconic New England marine life, bringing people in droves each year to experience the sight of these majestic creatures, and contributing significantly to New England’s coastal economies.

Unfortunately, recent developments by our neighbors to the north put whales and the region’s economy at risk. Earlier this month, Nova Scotia’s government granted final approval to a Norwegian energy company, Statoil, to begin offshore oil exploration just east of Georges Bank, off the coast of the province’s Scotian Shelf. This exploratory lease area is in addition to two others, owned by Shell Canada and BP Canada, which have permission to begin the process of testing for oil.

While Canada has a moratorium on oil exploration in Georges Bank, similar to our own, the country has otherwise aggressively pursued offshore oil and gas development in the Atlantic. These new leases near Georges Bank are too close for comfort.

The Gulf of Maine, and Georges Bank especially, is an ecologically sensitive and biologically-rich area, and new oil exploration poses significant and immediate threats to the region’s ecosystems, particularly to marine mammals such as the North Atlantic right whale.

Seismic testing

When drilling occurs, the risks are massive – the worst of which is an oil spill. But even before any drilling occurs, irreversible damage can occur. The first step a company takes in testing for oil is to conduct seismic testing, a process that uses air gun blasts to scan areas for mineral deposits. These blasts must be loud enough to reach the ocean floor, where sensors record and send the data back up to the surface.

During seismic testing, companies run these blasts repeatedly, often 10 seconds apart, 24 hours a day, for many days in a row.

If you can imagine being exposed again and again to an extremely loud, unknown noise for weeks at a time, I think you can understand why this is a problem. As complex creatures who rely on sound waves to communicate, whales are especially at risk. The noise is loud enough to mask whale calls over thousands of miles, causing confusion that could lead to habitat abandonment, putting them at risk for displacement. The constant noise can also cause temporary or permanent hearing loss, disruptions to normal feeding and mating habits, and chronic health problems from increased stress levels – all of which can have a major impact on the species’ ability to rebound.

All marine life is important to healthy ocean ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine, but the endangered North Atlantic right whale would be the most vulnerable to seismic testing. Only around 500 whales are alive today, putting them at dire risk of extinction. Threatening even one of these whales threatens the entire species at a time when every whale counts.

A Safe Haven

With climate change and overfishing already putting pressure on our ocean habitats, providing a safe haven for North Atlantic right whales – and all of the marine creatures that depend on a healthy ocean – is more important than ever before.

Conservation Law Foundation has long fought to protect our ocean wildlife – including taking fisheries managers to task for failing to protected some of New England’s most iconic groundfish species from near extinction. Last year, we worked to ensure protections for North Atlantic right whales when Deepwater Wind sought to create the first offshore wind farm in the Rhode Island Sound. Working with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation, we successfully came to an agreement with the company to limit pre-construction activities for the turbines during seasons when right whales migrate through the area.

Risks posed from oil exploration are real and happening now, we cannot sit passively by while oil interests threaten our coastal economies and endangered species. Unfortunately, the United States cannot stop Canadian oil exploration in nearby waters. But we can send a strong signal to our northern neighbor by permanently protecting critical ocean areas that can serve as a safe haven for threatened species.

Designating the Cashes Ledge Area and the New England Canyons and Seamounts as the Atlantic’s first Marine National Monument would send a strong message that these areas are important national and international interests worth protecting.

Marine Mammals and Underwater Mountains: More Evidence for Protecting Habitats with Diverse Wildlife

The deep-water canyons, seamounts, and underwater mountain ranges in the coastal waters of New England are gaining recognition for their importance to the health of fish populations like the struggling Atlantic cod. But these unique geological formations are also critical for the marine mammals that call the North Atlantic home.

Hail the WhalesNorth Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf

The Atlantic coast is a veritable highway for migrating whales, which travel from breeding grounds in the south to feeding grounds in the north each year. But with many species facing reduced habitat, diminished populations, and increased boat traffic, this annual journey has become more and more difficult. These growing threats make areas of food abundance and shelter, such as Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts, ever more critical to the success of migrating whales’ journeys.

Cashes Ledge and the canyons and seamounts are unique in the Atlantic because their topography creates ideal conditions for plankton, zooplankton, and copepods – the main food for migrating minke, right, and humpback whales – to thrive. They also serve as spawning ground for larger food sources – including many squish, fish, and crustaceans. Altogether, this rich abundance of species adds up to a bountiful buffet for whales and other marine mammals.

Sperm whales have often been spotted in the waters of seamounts, taking advantage of the reliable food, and Cashes Ledge serves as an oasis for hungry whales on their journey north.

The healthy kelp domino effect

These areas are not only crucial to whales; other marine mammals depend on them as well. Cashes Ledge boasts the largest coldwater kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard, a habitat that creates ideal spawning grounds for cod, herring, and hake. The abundance of fish in turn feeds seals and porpoises, as well as whales.

Scientists have noted a positive correlation between the size of an undersea kelp forest and populations of marine mammals, suggesting that more, healthy kelp means more marine mammals. That makes protecting areas with large kelp forests such as Cashes Ledge even more important.

Even marine mammals that don’t visit Cashes Ledge itself still benefit from the protection of the area’s kelp forest, thanks to the “spillover effect:” Fish spawned in the shelter of the rocky crevasses and havens of the kelp forests disperse beyond Cashes Ledge and feed sea animals throughout the Gulf of Maine.

Across the globe, underwater mountain and canyon habitats have proved to be important areas where marine mammals congregate to feed – and the canyons, seamounts, and ledges off the coast of New England are no different. Unfortunately, these important ecosystems are delicate and facing threats from harmful fishing gear and climate change.

With so much at stake, it is vital to protect these places – not only for their inherent ecological value, but also so that they may sustain the mammals that depend on them.

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

“Save the Whales” was a popular cry in the late 1980s to ban commercial whaling worldwide. While progress has certainly been made, this phrase should not be relegated to a dated trope: Many whale populations are still struggling, including our New England’s own North Atlantic Right Whale.

Found from Nova Scotia to Florida, the area from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Cod is essential for this endangered species. Its name comes from the idea that it was the “right” whale to hunt – it was slow-moving and had lots of oil and baleen. Commercial whaling for this species ended in 1935, but these New England whales are still rebuilding.

Zach Klyver, a naturalist with Bar Harbor Whale Watch, has conducted surveys commissioned by the New England Aquarium on whales in the Cashes Ledge Area in the Gulf of Maine. During these winter surveys, Klyer says he saw many right whales breeching just before sunset. According to Klyver, “Cashes Ledge is a significant place for right whales year-round.”

Marine protected areas allow species like the right whale to find refuge from human threats and to thrive. Dr. Scott Kraus, marine scientist at the New England Aquarium, says that the reason Cashes Ledge in particular is important is because “The landscape underwater has a lot of steep angles and hills, so that any water currents rush to the surface. This makes plankton bloom, and it brings fish in – it’s a great restaurant for whales in New England.”

Thriving whale populations also help boost tourism during the popular whale-watching season—more whales means more opportunities for sightseeing. Tourism in New England provides 230,000 jobs and brings in $16 billion – more than all the fisheries, forestry, and agriculture industries combined – making it the life blood of New England’s economy.

An expanding coalition is working to establish permanent protections for Cashes Ledge and another important New England area, the Coral Canyons and Seamounts, by calling on President Obama to establish the first Marine National Monument in the Atlantic. Join the conversation on Twitter: Tweet with #SaveOceanTreasures